An Amazing Talent - by Gordon Kirby In 27 years of covering racing across the United States and around the world, I have never seen a driver arrive at the top level of the sport with such striking speed, precision and aggression as Juan...
An Amazing Talent - by Gordon Kirby
In 27 years of covering racing across the United States and around the world, I have never seen a driver arrive at the top level of the sport with such striking speed, precision and aggression as Juan Pablo Montoya. I saw Gilles Villeneuve race Formula Atlantic and CanAm cars before he broke into Formula One with McLaren, then Ferrari in 1977. Around the same time I watched Keke Rosberg race Formula Atlantic and CanAm cars. In 1973 I covered Jody Scheckter when the South African raced CanAm and F5000 cars here in the States as a prelude to his Formula One career. I put Montoya in Villeneuve's and Rosberg's bracket when it comes to speed and aggression and liken him to the youthful Scheckter.
But Montoya is more precise, more controlled than Villeneuve, Rosberg or Scheckter were those many years ago. Since his collision with Michael Andretti during practice in Japan in early April, Montoya has not put a wheel wrong. He was fined $5,000 and put on probation by CART's chief steward Wally Dallenbach for that wild indiscretion at the 220-mph Motegi oval, but since then Montoya has been literally inch perfect.
From the race at Motegi through Long Beach, Nazareth and Rio, the 23-year-old Colombian rookie has not been involved in a single incident, nor have I heard any driver complain in any way about him.
Instead, he challenged for the lead at Motegi before running out of fuel, then won three races in a row -- the first time in CART's 20-year history a rookie has done so.
In the last three races, Montoya led 343 laps. He heads the FedEx Championship by 15 points over Dario Franchitti. Christian Fittipaldi and Greg Moore are stacked up close behind. Nigel Mansell aside, Champ Car racing has never seen such an impressive rookie. And truth be known, Montoya looks steadier, tidier and more consistent than Mansell, who was a 39-year-old F1 champion when he was a CART rookie back in 1993.
Montoya's father Pablo is an architect who raced karts for many years. His uncle Diego raced GT cars in IMSA in the United States. Montoya started racing karts when he was just a little boy. He competed regularly in Colombia and in the karting world championship in Europe before moving into Formula Renault cars in Colombia, then into the Barber/Saab series in the United States in 1994. Montoya was an instant race winner in every category and went to Europe the following year, competing in Vauxhall/Lotus, Formula Three and F3000. He earned a job as Frank Williams' F1 test driver and won last year's FIA F3000 championship.
His father says Montoya's time in the United States and Europe, where father and son struggled to find the sponsorship for each category, taught his son a lot about life. "When he drove for Helmut Marko's team in F3000, he lived in a little flat and it was a very difficult time," says the senior Montoya. "He didn't have any money or a road car, and he didn't know how to speak the language, but that was a very important time for him. It made him strong."
A key moment was when Montoya earned himself the Williams F1 test drive.
"That was when I was able to say, 'My job is done,'" says Pablo Montoya. "He was on his way." His father believes he has seen a more mature and complete Juan emerge this year. "When he won at Nazareth with a lot of pressure on him all the way, every lap, I saw a new Juan Pablo."
Montoya is contracted for the next three years to drive for Chip Ganassi's excellent championship-defending Champ Car team. Ganassi's team has won the last three CART titles, and Montoya has taken over Alex Zanardi's plum ride with veteran Mo Nunn engineering his car. With a Reynard chassis, Honda engines and Firestone tires, Montoya enjoys the best technical combination in the FedEx Championship Series, as well as ultra-reliable machinery. He has a fine opportunity to win the championship in his rookie year.
The competition in Champ Car racing is fierce this year. A little under one second covered the fastest laps of no fewer than 22 drivers in Rio last weekend. All of them are faced with the imponderable task of how to catch and pass the brilliant Montoya. Can anyone beat him? What does the future hold for this exceptionally talented young man?