INDIANAPOLIS, Monday, May 21, 2001 - He may have only finished one Grand Prix in his first six Formula One starts, but last year's Indianapolis 500 winner, Juan Pablo Montoya, has already made a huge impression in his rookie Formula One ...
INDIANAPOLIS, Monday, May 21, 2001 - He may have only finished one Grand Prix in his first six Formula One starts, but last year's Indianapolis 500 winner, Juan Pablo Montoya, has already made a huge impression in his rookie Formula One season.
After winning the 1998 FIA International FIA Formula 3000 championship in Europe, Montoya headed for North America, where he won the CART championship in 1999 and the 2000 Indianapolis 500 driving for Chip Ganassi's Target team. This year he made his F1 debut driving for Williams-BMW.
Race fans who had watched Montoya slice his way through the field on his way to leading 167 of 200 laps in last year's Indianapolis 500 know of the Colombian driver's skill and bravery. Formula One fans were given a sample of Montoya's hard-charging style in the third Grand Prix of the season, in Brazil, when he challenged two-time World Champion Michael Schumacher in a side-by-side wheel-banging pass for the lead. Montoya said he never considered that he was taking on the mighty Schumacher.
"That is the only way you can pass," Montoya said. "If you think about it, 'Oh it's Michael, watch it, it's Michael, oh Michael!' you will never make it." Montoya went on dominate the Brazilian Grand Prix until punted off by Jos Verstappen on Lap 39. Montoya was not all that upset with the way his race ended because he was so happy to have led and driven without making mistakes.
"I wasn't that disappointed because it wasn't my fault," Montoya said. "It was a bit frustrating because I was doing a good job. But the way the fans were cheering, and everything, it helped my spirit quite a lot. I think it was good to show everybody. For me it was important to lead; it was a big boost to my confidence to show I can do a good job."
Montoya also firmly believes that his two years of racing in North America gave him great maturity and patience. "In America, I had really tough times," he said, "especially at the beginning of last season with that (Toyota) engine in the Lola. We had a lot of problems. It really cost us a lot of time, a lot of races and a lot of points. "You just have to get to the next race; you've got to be relaxed. If the car doesn't run, I can't sit down and cry because I don't want my morale to go that way. I'd never been patient before this. I didn't really learn until last year, the last two years when I learned to be patient. I think that really helped."
He has needed to use that patience this year as a series of problems have hampered him in both practice and the race. In the San Marino Grand Prix, for example, which was round four of 17 this season, he never turned a lap on dry track until his first lap in qualifying. That was also the first race when he finally got to make his first F1 pit stop during racing.
In the season opener in Australia, Montoya started his F1 career by sliding off the track just after the start and then tangling with Eddie Irvine several corners later. He would have finished in the top six if the engine on his Williams-BMW had not expired on Lap 41.
"It was disappointing that I could not see the checkered flag because I had a good race so far," Montoya said at the time. "The engine blew up without giving any warning. I can say now that running in F1 can be quite fun. I first thought overtaking was going to be impossible, but now I realize that you can if you plan for it, it is also very exciting."
In round two, in Malaysia, Montoya had to start from the pit lane in the spare car after the engine died in his primary car. He ended up spinning off and stalling on Lap 4 when a heavy rainstorm suddenly struck. The next race was in Brazil, where Montoya would lead for the first time before tangling with Verstappen.
The first race in Europe this season was the San Marino Grand Prix in Imola, Italy, where Montoya's race lasted long enough for him to finally make two pit stops. He was running fifth coming up to that second stop when bad luck struck again.
"When I stopped for my second pit stop, I had a problem with the clutch and could not get any more gears," he said. "I went out of the pits, but then I was stuck in first gear, and all I could do was drive back into the garage."
That was the race where Montoya's teammate, Ralf Schumacher, younger brother of Ralf Schumacher, would score his first Grand Prix victory and the first win for the Williams/BMW/Michelin combination.
Montoya and Ralf Schumacher freely admit that they are not great friends off the track, but they do share technical information and work together to improve the car. "It is all right," Montoya said of his relationship with his teammate. "He is doing his bit, and I am doing mine. I don't think you ever have a friendship relationship with a driver who is competitive. I definitely think I can beat him, but it is not going to be easy. For him to beat me is not going to be that easy, either. "I'm not too concerned about someone liking me or not. My responsibility here with the team and my sponsors is to do my best job. If someone doesn't like what you're doing, then he can come and talk to me." In round five, in Spain, Montoya had another trouble-filled practice session. The mechanical problems have been a handicap for Montoya, especially because he had little or no experience on the first four tracks he raced on this season. "Apart from that race (Brazil), it has been quite difficult because we have missed Friday's session quite often," he said. "We have always had problems on Friday, and it makes it quite difficult to make up the ground. I am really looking forward to start getting it all rolling without having problems. If you can't do all the preparations this season, it makes it very hard. It is a big sacrifice." Although Montoya only qualified 12th in Spain, he finally managed not only to complete his first Grand Prix but also finished second. "I think it's really exciting," Montoya said. "The first four races have been very hard for me. We have been competitive in some of them, not so much in others. Here, I wasn't expecting to be on the podium, really. The start was really good and moved me up a lot of places, and then I just kept pushing all day long."
The Spanish Grand Prix was unique as each of the top three finishers on the podium were all former winners at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The winner in Spain, Michael Schumacher, also won the inaugural SAP United States Grand Prix at Indianapolis last September. Montoya, who finished second in Spain, won last year's Indianapolis 500, while third-placed Jacques Villeneuve won the 1995 Indianapolis 500. Colombia's President Andres Pastrana telephoned Montoya to congratulate him after the Spanish Grand Prix. "It made me feel proud because you know you are doing something good, apart for myself and the team, for the country," Montoya said.
Everything went smoothly in qualifying in Austria, round six, for Montoya, and he responded by putting his Williams-BMW on the front row alongside pole winner Michael Schumacher. Montoya grabbed the lead at the start and held it for the first 16 laps when he ran wide while fending off a challenge by Schumacher. Both drivers slid off the track. While he initially blamed Montoya for the episode, after reviewing the video, Schumacher deemed it to have been just a racing incident. Montoya worked his way back to sixth before retiring with hydraulic problems.
"I made a good start, and during the race the car was behaving better and better," Montoya said. "What happened with Michael (Schumacher) was just a racing incident. He braked quite late, and I braked quite late, as well. I locked the rear tires and ran wide."
The Austrian Grand Prix was another example of how Montoya is willing to go head-to-head with Michael Schumacher. That fierce attitude on the track, combined with an affable and laid-back attitude off the track along with his brilliant smile, has turned Montoya into a popular newcomer on the F1 scene. And he doesn't plan to leave soon. "I want a long career in Formula One," Montoya said. "It would be nice to match what (Ayrton) Senna and Michael (Schumacher) have done. I am not doing it because I want to be famous or because someone says I am a genius. I am doing this because I love it."