Montoya brings Latin colour to Indy showdown

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The Independent Online

For Henry Ford, pioneer of mass production, it was any colour so long as it was black. For Juan Pablo Montoya, creator of mass hysteria here at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, it is any colour so long as it is a red, blue and yellow Colombian flag.

Formula One needs an American driver before it really takes off over here. But in the meantime Montoya is doing a fine job of boosting the gate for Indiana billionaire Tony George, the owner of this chunk of prime real estate on which ­ in the guise of the Indianapolis 500 ­ some of the greatest races in American history have been run. As the winner himself back in 2000 he is a well-known figure to race fans, and they still remember his easy manner during his days racing in the Cart series here in 1999 and 2000. Such things matter to an audience weaned on drivers who know how to communicate with them. One of the things Montoya has always said he dislikes about F1 is the way the drivers keep to themselves. Thousands of Colombians have flocked into town to watch the man who is arguably the most charismatic racer to hit grand prix racing in years.

To begin with, it was not a great weekend for his title rival, Michael Schumacher. On Friday afternoon he was only eighth fastest in qualifying, hampered for much of the season by his role as track cleaner as the leader of the world championship points table. "Once again, the early runners in qualifying were slightly disadvantaged," Schumacher said, "especially after the rain which fell in the morning which meant the track was a bit dirty and lacked grip." Then his Ferrari lasted fewer than 10 corners at the start of practice on Saturday morning before rolling to a silent halt in turn nine. This was just what the world champion needed least, for track time lost these days is notoriously hard to recover in the cut and thrust world of high-speed chassis tuning.

It was not lack of reactions that caused the car to stop on the side of the track rather than on the safety of the grass alongside, and Schumacher's attempt to have the session stopped so his car could be retrieved from a dangerous spot backfired as marshals merely pushed him somewhere more secure. There he was forced to wait for the 45 minute session to end, kicking his heels and eventually smiling stoically for the cameramen who gathered round him like moths drawn to a flame. His misfortune, after all, was big news.

Back in the pits Montoya was also mugging for the cameras. They caught him sniggering as he saw Schumacher's plight relayed on the television monitors, and when he realised he himself was the focus of the lens he pretended to look rueful. A guy with a sense of humour would surely make a fine world champion. Minutes later, as other drivers sluggishly decided to make use of a track that was still damp in places after overnight storms, Montoya banged in fastest lap just to rub it in.

Schumacher did not get going until 23 minutes were left of the second session, but then showed his undoubted class by setting the fastest time on his first flying lap. This was subsequently bettered both by the Renault driver Jarno Trulli and Schumacher's team-mate Rubens Barrichello.

Qualifying pace, of course, is dictated these days by fuel load. After Kimi Raikkonen and Olivier Panis set the pace, Schumacher's failure to better 1m 12.194s and (temporarily) third placewith a high fuel load set Colombian flags waving. But Montoya spoiled his lap with a small slide and so did Barrichello, leaving Raikkonen clear as Trulli was the last man to run. The Italian had crashed his car in the pre-qualifying warm-up, and could not quite match his pace earlier in the weekend. For the second time, Raikkonen had pole position.

The times were so close, hinting that a very competitive race is in prospect. You have to go back to 1986 to find the last time that there were three championship contenders with two races to go. Back then it was Alain Prost, Nelson Piquet and Nigel Mansell, and the battle went down to the wire in Adelaide where Prost snuck through after Mansell blew a Goodyear tyre with the title in the bag, and team-mate Piquet was pulled in by the Williams team for a precautionary change.

As it was then, McLaren is in the outsider slot with Raikkonen seven points adrift of Schumacher and 10 points up for grabs to the winner. While Schumacher, seventh, and Montoya, fourth, can play safe and still stay in contention this weekend, Raikkonen must attack. That suits him fine for he knows no other way to drive.