Montoya, come home

Posted on | Author Keith Collantine

Juan Pablo Montoya, McLaren-Mercedes, Montreal, 2006Today marks one year since Juan Pablo Montoya abruptly called time on his F1 career and returned to the United States to race in NASCAR.

He scored his first victory in the Nextel Cup last month, underlining his talent and versatility as a driver. Few modern drivers have a CV to rival Montoya’s, with victories in F1 (including the Monaco Grand Prix), the Indy 500 and the CART championship (now Champ Car).

But he never achieved his full potential in Formula 1 and stormed out halfway through his second year with McLaren. He criticised the sport, pointing out that there was no chance for a driver to win if he didn’t have one of the very best cars.

It’s clear that his eighteen months with McLaren left him incredibly frustrated. After picking up an injury early in 2005 the rest of the season was wasted.

He won three times but repeatedly had to defer to team mate Kimi Raikkonen’s championship bid. On two occasions he was hit by a lapped car while running near the front.

Matters came to a head in 2006 when the McLaren was not competitive enough to fight for victories. Yet it seemed Montoya still discerned that the team was favouring Raikkonen. At the Australian round, during a safety car period, Montoya was forced to queue behind Raikkonen while the mechanics replaced the Finn’s front wing – seriously hindering Montoya’s progress.

He left McLaren following his involvement in a multi-car accident at Indianapolis that also eliminated his team mate. But the seeds of discontent were sown much earlier and I’m convinced that what happened at Melbourne played a significant role.

No-one in the upper echelons seems to be overly concerned that one of the sport’s top drivers left to join F1’s diametric opposite. Well, they should be. NASCAR isn’t my cup of tea, but it does give drivers a better opportunity to compete on merit, rather than being constrained by the limits of their cars.

Montoya was a genius at the art of overtaking and achieved brilliant passes in F1 and other disciplines. It brought him enormous popularity – earlier of this year many of you agreed that you would welcome Montoya back to F1 before Michael Schumacher or Jacques Villeneuve.

But overtaking is increasingly rare in F1 – there have been no passes for the lead other than at the start or in the pits this year.

I do think a lot of Montoya’s criticisms of F1 are valid. The skill of the driver should count for more than it does – getting rid of traction control for next year is a good start, but the next step must be to slash downforce levels.

This would make the cars harder to drive, more spectacular to watch and improve overtaking.

But I also think Montoya needs to swallow his pride and come back. He will only ever be a big fish in a small pond in NASCAR.

Austere, grey McLaren was exactly the wrong team for him to join – work hard, play hard party animals Red Bull would be a great fit.

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