For those of you not afraid of sweeping generalisations, racing drivers can be divided into two general groups. On the one hand we have the thinking drivers: the Alain Prosts, Jenson Buttons, and Dan Gurneys – all tacticians and masters of strategy.
On the other we have the aggressive drivers, those who will push hard, take risks and create opportunities. Men like Ayrton Senna, Lewis Hamilton and a feisty Colombian who in the early years of this century seemed to epitomise this style of driving: Juan Pablo Montoya.
From the beginning of his F1 career, where he gave clear notice of his intentions with an audacious overtaking move on defending world champion Michael Schumacher at Interlagos, Montoya developed a reputation for driving every race with a full-blooded determination to win that tended to result in either a podium finish, or a retirement. Over the course of the ninety-five races in which he competed throughout his career, he achieved thirty podiums, including seven wins, and had twenty nine retirements.
His attitude towards his career off the track also showed a similar honest directness, which came out most clearly in his early retirement from F1, where disenchanted by his poor second season at McLaren he announced halfway through 2006 that he would be leaving Formula One to drive in NASCAR the following year. This prompted McLaren to announce that Montoya was to stop driving for the team with immediate effect, his place being taken by their test driver Pedro de la Rosa for the rest of the season. As such fans were denied the chance to see him finish the season and reach his one hundredth race.
Juan Pablo Montoya was born in Bogotá, Colombia on 20th September 1975, and began his motorsport career in karting, before moving on to Formula Renault in his native country, then moving to the UK and taking part in Formula Vauxhall and Formula 3, before joining RSM Marko to race in Formula 3000. His performances there caught the attention of Frank Williams and he was invited to testing that year at Jerez with the Williams team, along with three other young drivers. Montoya’s performance there impressed enough to get him a seat at Williams as a test driver for the 1998 season, which he did whilst also taking the title in his second season of Formula 3000.
Montoya’s performances there, which notably including lapping the entire grid in the race at Pau in France, should have guaranteed him a seat at Williams in F1, but in a strange driver exchange scheme Montoya was sent to the US to race for Chip Ganassi in the CART series, while Alessandro Zanardi moved in the opposite direction to return to F1 for Williams. Montoya went on to become the youngest ever winner of the CART championship series that season, taking the title ahead of Dario Franchitti on number of wins, while Zanardi finished the season with no points, ten retirements and a highest placing of seventh at Monza. The Italian was replaced by Jenson Button for the 2000 season.
Montoya spent 2000 again in the CART series, but also raced for Ganassi in the Indy 500 where he won the race on his debut, a feat last achieved by Graham Hill. That weekend it was announced that Montoya would be returning to Williams, replacing Button, to race alongside Ralf Schumacher for the 2001 campaign.
His first season in F1 was in many ways a summary of what was to come: he finished only six out of seventeen races, but he was on the podium four times, including his debut victory at Monza. The following season saw fewer retirements and more podiums and by 2003 Montoya had his best year in Formula One, finishing third in the championship with just three retirements and nine podiums out of sixteen races, including wins at Monaco and Hockenheim.
The 2004 season was not a happy one for Montoya, with a combination of a difficult car and a strained atmosphere caused by the fact that he was due to leave Williams for McLaren at the end of the year, although he finished the season on a high, winning the Brazilian GP in his final race in the blue and white colours of Williams.
Unfortunately he was moving from one team with a difficult car to another and the first half of his debut season for McLaren was disappointing to say the least. The second half was a different matter as Montoya adapted to the car and the team adapted the car to his driving and of the last nine races of the season he won three, with podiums in two others, and eventually finished in fourth place in the drivers’ championship. The 2006 season began badly and didn’t improve, leading to his announcement that he would be racing in NASCAR the following season and his being dropped by the McLaren team. In the event he made his debut in the stockcar at the end of the 2006 season, driving once again for Chip Ganassi, which he has continues to do to this day.
Looking back, it is unfortunate in many ways that Montoya drove in F1 when he did, at a time when the sport was dominated by the clinical, cynical genius of Michael Schumacher, rather than in the more buccaneering era of the 1960s and 70s, or even in the macho turbo era of the 80s, when he might have had the opportunity to deliver his true potential. It would be interesting to see what he would do in today’s Formula One, but this regret seems to be something felt more by the fans than by Montoya himself – he is doing very well for himself without the sport, but would Formula One be better with Juan Pablo Montoya? I have to say, I think it probably would.