Love him or hate him, fans of the IndyCar Series certainly won’t be able to ignore him – Juan Pablo Montoya is making a return to open-wheel racing after signing a deal with the frontrunning Team Penske outfit.
The Comobian has been a part of the NASCAR scene for the past six-and-a-half years since quitting Formula 1, but was recently linked with a move back to the US open-wheel racing scene with the Andretti Autosports team.
However, it is understood that Montoya will join the Andretti team’s main rival, Team Penske, as teammates to Will Power and three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Hélio Castroneves, in an expanded three-car line-up.
“I am really excited to join this legendary team beginning next year,” Montoya said in yesterday’s announcement.
“I have had the opportunity to drive for some of the best racing teams in the world and I have always admired Roger Penske and his organization. I consider it an honor to be offered the opportunity to drive for Team Penske.”
“He has won a lot of races and championships and he has an extremely passionate fan base,” team owner Roger Penske added.
“We look forward to building on his successes together and we believe he will be a great addition to Team Penske.”
While his stint in NASCARs has done little to dull his speed or expand his bank balance – and waistline! – Montoya still enjoys a reputation as one of motorsport’s most mercurial performers, capable of sheer, fearless brilliance on the track, and utter petulance off it…
The son of an architect who had also dabbled in karting, the Bogota-born Juan Pablo started driving karts when he was just five years old, and was racing by the time he was ten. A prodigious talent, he competed in his first World Championship at the age of sixteen, and that year won the Bogota Six-Hour sports car race behind the wheel of a Group C Spice.
After graduating from the Skip Barber Racing School, he returned home and won half of the championship’s races that season, before winning the title in 1993. This promoted him to the Barber Dodge Championship, and he placed third in his maiden season in 1994 with two wins.
An aspiring Formula 1 driver has to cut his teeth in Europe, and so Juan Pablo moved to Britain, placing third in the Formula Vauxhall championship with four wins in 1995, and then finished fourth in the British F3 championship in 1996 with two wins.
Graduating to Formula 3000 proved to be a smart move, and driving for Helmut Marko’s squad he finished runner-up in the 1997 championship to Ricardo Zonta with three race wins. Signed as the Williams test driver for 1998, he agreed to give Sir Frank first option on his services for the next five years.
Switching to the Super Nova outfit in 1998, he beat Nick Heidfeld to the title with four race wins in addition to clocking up over 5,000 miles in the Williams F1 cockpit.
However, Williams had already secured the services of Ralf Schumacher and Alex Zanardi for the 1999 season, so he did a deal to take over Zanardi’s seat in the Target Chip Ganassi CART team, and incredibly blitzed the championship with seven wins. A year later, he won the Indianapolis 500 at his first attempt.
There was finally room at the Williams team for the 2001 season, much to Ralf Schumacher’s chagrin, and he impressed with a ballsy passing move on race-leader Michael Schumacher at the Brazilian Grand Prix. He would have won the race were he not punted off after lapping Jos Verstappen in the Arrows, and he would face a series of near-misses until his maiden win finally came at the Italian Grand Prix.
The next year saw Juan Pablo cement his reputation as a great qualifier, with a string of pole positions not backed up by a single race win. He was a contender for the title in the 2003 season, but a string of costly errors led to a falling-out with the Williams team, leading him to sign with McLaren for the 2005 season.
He saw out the 2004 season with Williams, but it was largely undistinguished, although he took victory in his final appearance for the squad at Interlagos.
His move to McLaren didn’t start brilliantly, and he missed several races after apparently injuring his shoulder playing tennis, and returned mid-season, but largely in the shadows of team-mate Kimi Räikkönen, in spite of taking three race wins.
Well off Räikkönen’s pace in 2006, he signed a deal to compete in the NASCAR series from 2007 when it became clear that McLaren weren’t interested in renewing his services. But following a clumsy first-lap accident where he took out his team-mate at Indianapolis, team boss Ron Dennis called his bluff and released him from further duties before the French Grand Prix.
How such a gruff, boisterous character such as Montoya was ever going to fit in the stuffy, corporate McLaren culture was an answer that Dennis was never able to provide adequately, but he remained one of the last true characters on an increasingly-bland Formula 1 grid.
Montoya certainly settled right into the NASCAR scene, making his debut before the 2006 season was out and earning plenty of fans for his rough and tumble antics on and off the track.
Despite his reputation, he sadly failed to deliver to the sponsors’ expectations, claiming just two wins in his tin-top career Stateside.