Born racer roars through whispering gallery and round the learning curve

The Juan Pablo Montoya interview: Speed on its own is no short cut to glory.
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The corridor between the back of the team trucks and the front of the motorhomes in the Silverstone paddock is part promenade, part whispering gallery. An unsettled driver walks down the lane, falls into conversation with a rival team-owner in front of the photographers and, hey presto, the deal is done. Mid-July, the British Grand Prix, race number 11 of 17 on the calendar, and already thoughts are turning to next year.

Most drivers hate the silly season because the rumours revolve like carousels, picking up a momentum all of their own. But to Juan Pablo Montoya, this is just another aspect of the ridiculously exclusive club into which he enrolled just five months ago. "The gossip is quite funny, actually," he says. Not demoralising, if your name is floating on the breeze? "Nah, if it's gossip, it's not true. I've always been very strong mentally. The best way to deal with the gossip is to ignore it. You're not in Formula One for the gossip, you're there to drive a car."

Montoya's gift for driving a car quicker than anyone else is the source of his own vulnerability. Many of those who so confidently predicted the dawning of a new era have revised their opinions so substantially the reputation of Formula One's latest hotshot lies on the grindstone at the rumour mill. Outqualified in nine out of 10 races by Ralf Schumacher, his team-mate, often outraced by him as well, Montoya is being damned for failing to match unrealistic expectations. The man himself is unrepentant. He grabs the pen and defaces the back of a signed photo with a sketch of a steep learning curve.

"This is the race weekend here, right." He gets quite animated now, quite Colombian, the pen flicks across the card. "You start here." And he draws a series of crosspoints on a vertical line to denote the different practice sessions in a weekend. "You want to get here, to the top, that's winning and you go up the scale. You run strongly, then suddenly you break down here and you lose a session. The other guy is going half a second quicker. Half a second you haven't got. So when you get to here" – he points to another crosspoint on the line – "you're half a second behind."

The other guy is Ralf Schumacher. Montoya goes on, full throttle, his English passionate but erratic, in the language of the pit signal. "Maybe the maximum of the car is P5, but another weekend the maximum of the car is P1. If you managed to get P5 one weekend, when the car is P1, you'll be ready, you'll be capable of winning." At Williams, in the bowels of the team where the less glamorous work is done, they like Juan Pablo. They like the fact that he is one of the boys, that he will be clowning around the garage when others more protective of their stardom have retreated to the gilded cage. In fact, sometimes, they have to tell Juancho – his father's nickname – to get the hell out, not least because their arms are aching from the regular hearty thumps. The mechanics know a racer when they see one and they trust Montoya.

"There's no sense that he's not trying, no feeling of, 'We're here until 11 o'clock at night and this flipping bloke's not got his foot down'. That makes it easier when there's work to be done," says Tim Preston, Montoya's race engineer at BMW-Williams.

Quite the opposite, in fact. Twice, in Monaco and Montreal, the strength of Montoya's racing instincts forced him into an unwanted collision with the learning curve. "Why did I crash the car in Canada?" he asks. "I wanted to prove the point that I could go really quick. I did fastest lap on that lap. But I wasn't thinking this race is 80 laps and I want to be there at the end, I wanted to make all the ground up in one corner. It was the one time this season I was really pissed off with myself because I made a stupid mistake. At the beginning, you think people are bullshitting you. If the car is good, it's good, if it's not, it's not. But this is different, everything is so much on the edge."

If this is the voice of a chastened champion, Montoya is happy to claim it. One of his most endearing characteristics is searing honesty, with himself, the team, other drivers, an unusual quality in the maze of F1 politics, but one which angers rivals and delights the press in equal measure. The well-publicised spat with Jacques Ville-neuve, the explosive overtaking manoeuvre on Michael Schumacher in Brazil, everything has been about marking out mental terrain, establishing parameters, jostling egos. Just ask Michael Andretti, the multi-Cart champion who was such a conspicuous failure in F1. Andretti and Montoya were due a clash in Indycars, the old champ and the new. It duly happened, both were taken out and then they went racing.

"He realised I wasn't going to move, I knew he wasn't going to move and almost the next race, in Michigan, we spent 20 laps side by side. It wasn't the most sensible way to earn respect. But I love that, I love racing. I don't do racing because of the money, I don't do racing because of the fame, I don't care about the fame. I race 'cos I wanna race." Which can cause frustration in a world as ordered and hierarchical as Formula One.

Preston, who engineered the highly talented young British driver Jenson Button in his debut season last year, is in a unique position to compare the two. "It's an interesting contrast. Jenson is probably a bit more methodical and quieter about it all. Juan is more emotional, not in a derogatory sense. If Jenson was pissed off, he'd go a bit quiet, wander off and have a think. Juan will be a bit more fiery, a bit more get-up-and-go. But what makes the best racing driver? I'm not sure." Button v Montoya for the vacant seat in 2003 is a topic of lively debate down chit-chat alley.

Pablo Montoya is not the typical racing father. He admits he has barely talked to Sir Frank Williams or Patrick Head, and when his son is at the office, there is no attempt to interfere. He is quietly spoken, intelligent, an architect by profession, but a racing driver in his dreams. "I'm a fan and I love to be here," he says. He has been a fan since the age of four, when his father took him on to the streets of his native Bogota to watch the cars pass through on South America's equivalent of the Mille Miglia. "They had a race from Buenos Aires to Venezuela, the whole length of the continent, and it came through our city."

But Pablo's father refused to kindle the fire. Pablo, he thought, should adopt more profitable pastimes, like reading books. "When I did get to drive a go-kart for the first time, I was 29. But that was the end of the world for me. It was incredible. With Juan, I wanted to give him what my father didn't give me." So Juan would sit on his father's lap, steering at first, then, when he was tall enough, pressing the pedals. The pair learnt together on the dusty kart tracks of Bogota. Then they raced; Juan was 14, Pablo 46. "And he beat me, straight from the start," Pablo recalls. "He was going and going and I was concentrating so hard and then I stop because I realise I have to put all my effort into helping him."

Pablo remembers another moment. He had taken Juan to the junior world championships in Italy and he was sitting at a long table eating dinner, unobtrusively as ever, when the conversation turned to this new young Colombian driver. "And one of them said, 'I've not seen a kid like this since Ayrton Senna'. You know, it is difficult sometimes being a father, trying to look at your son from the outside, but he had no idea who I was and he said that. I was very proud." When Juan began racing single-seaters in the States, he and his father would travel to the races in a refrigerated plane carrying flowers from Bogota to Miami, wrapped up in heavy coats and shivering from the cold.

Sometimes, they would drive – New York to Detroit – the whole family to get to the races. But Juan learnt his trade in those days, driving everything from saloon cars to TransAm. Back in his home in Miami – he had to move from his house in one of the wealthier suburbs of Bogota once details of Juan's earning power had appeared in the local press – Pablo has a photo of his son driving a Lada round the streets of Pereira, a town in the central coffe-growing area of Colombia. "One wheel is off the ground and he's really pushing, but then that's him, you know," he says gently. "If he came out of Formula One tomorrow and you said, 'Hey, Juan, come and drive my beaten-up old Mini', he'd put on his helmet and gloves and say, 'Let's go'. I don't understand him sometimes."

There was no possibility of misdiagnosing the talent. Vic Elford, the old Le Mans specialist, was Juan's instructor on a course in the States. When the week was over, Elford called Pablo over. "I want you to keep in touch about this kid," he said. "I've not seen anything like it in 30 years." In fact, one of Montoya's problems, Preston believes, is the transcendency of his talent. He never had to try that hard to win. F3, F3000, Cart, Montoya went to the feared Brickyard as a rookie and so controlled his first Indy 500 he was laughing at Chip Ganassi, his team boss, down the intercom. "He's risen to the top very quickly," Preston points out. "Probably without too much effort, and I think all of a sudden he's thought, 'Crikey, everyone's a bit quicker than I thought'."

But there is one other thing about Juan Montoya, something Pablo noticed when he used to chide his son for playing computer games instead of doing his homework. Juan would be sent to study. Ten minutes later, he would return. "I'd say to him, 'You can't have done your studying so fast'. And I'd test him and he would get everything right. He has a great memory."

For technical data and circuits. What initially impressed Simon Hodgson, chief mechanic for the Ganassi team, was the thoroughness of the new boy's research. "He didn't just jump in the car and say, 'Let's go'. He'd spent a lot of time watching videos, studying the races and reading the rulebook." While Tim Preston has to riffle through his books to recover the details of a specific test, Montoya has instant recall of fuel loads, tyre compounds and lap times, a confusing counter to those critics who regard the Colombian as just another balls out, brains out, racer.

"To beat these guys, you've got to be smarter than them," Montoya says. "That's what Michael is, he's smarter than everyone else, him and his team. We haven't quite got that yet. I'm learning to be consistent and I'm learning that going quick is not just driving flat out 100 per cent. You've gotta work with the engineers and let the car do the job." Back in his home in Indianapolis, Hodgson has a painting of Montoya in full flow. Montoya commissioned seven separate works, one for each of his victories in his championship season, and presented them to the mechanics.

On the reverse side, the message reads: "Simon says: F... Off." As Pablo says, the streets of Bogota are not a training ground for compromise. "You know, in South America, everyone is driving crazy. They do things that would get you locked up here. Racing is the same. You have to be tough." Right now, Formula One needs every one of Montoya's jagged edges.

Juan Pablo Montoya: Biography

Born: 20 Sept 1975, Bogota, Colombia

Resident: Monte Carlo

1984: Colombian national kart champion (children's division)

1992: Copa Formula Renault

1995: British Formula Vauxhall, 3rd

1996: Bogota six hours, 1st. Formula 3 Championship, 4th

1997: Formula 3000, 2nd

1998: Formula 3000, champion

1999: Cart FedEx, champion (seven race wins)

2000: Indianapolis 500, 1st

2001: Joined Williams F1. 2nd in Spanish and European GPs

Comments