Montoya cracks secret formula in glory drive

Single-minded Colombian has completed graduation and will pose real threat to world champion tomorrow
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After only a brief spell in Formula One, Juan Pablo Montoya is already renowned as a man of generosity. His father, Pablo, is still celebrating the gift his son gave him on his 51st birthday a fortnight ago: his maiden grand prix victory at Monza. And Jo Ramirez, the veteran Mexican Anglophile who has long been a part of the sport's fabric and a key member of teams such as Ferrari, Eagle, Fittipaldi, Shadow, Tyrrell and McLaren since the 1960s, was touched that the Colombian turned up to help him through his retirement party at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum last night. Sentiment, after all, does not abound in Formula One.

A year ago, Montoya was the bogeyman haunting Ralf Schumacher's dreams following the official announcement that he would be replacing Jenson Button as the German's partner at Williams. The European circus already knew that Montoya was quick in Formula Three and Formula 3000, the junior grades that represent the steps to Formula One on the graduation ladder. But here last year, on the occasion of Formula One's return to the United States after a nine-year absence, served to drive home the message, for Montoya had for the last two seasons woven his magic in America's premier single-seater ChampCar series. On his first attempt at the famous 500-mile race here last May, Montoya won, as they say over here, going away.

One year on, Montoya has recovered from the shaky start to his F1 season and the disappointment of being punted out of almost certain victory in only his third race, in Brazil. And he has weathered the storm of accidents in Monte Carlo and Montreal. Other victories in Austria, Germany and Belgium eluded him through typical vagaries of the Formula One war: another clash with Michael Schumacher; engine failure; and a stalled engine.

Monza wiped all that away. Already he had been regularly out-qualifying Ralf Schumacher. And his victory endorsed his own – and his team's – view that his failure to win the German GP was entirely due to a prolonged pit stop rather than, as his team-mate had suggested, because he had overworked his engine. While Montoya was busy winning in Italy, Schumacher was only third.

Montoya said: "I think the biggest adjustment I had to make in F1 was getting fully hands on with the car, to really work with the team to try to maximise what I needed on the set-up. It's been quite difficult. It's a lot of work.

"You know, every time you're out there you're learning something new. So you're always evolving and becoming a better driver. You've got to push harder and harder if you want to become better. I had to push to my limits when I won the championship here and the Indy 500. In F1 you have to do that every week. To be in a really competitive level, you've got to try to do a better job than the rest. That's the only way to win."

Mika Hakkinen led the way yesterday, perhaps rejuvenated by his recently announced sabbatical from racing in 2002, and the Finn was chased by the Ferraris of Schumacher and Barrichello. The Williams duo lurked at the lower end of the top 10, but times on Friday are habitually misleading as teams carry out their race preparations rather than aim for fast times.

Such things are to be expected, and it would much more to dent the view of many people within the team that next year's champion is sitting in car No 6 this year.

US GRAND PRIX (Indianapolis, tomorrow) First practice: 1 M Hakkinen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes 1min 13.387sec; 2 M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari +0.165 sec; 3 R Barrichello (Br) Ferrari +0.197; 4 D Coulthard (GB) McLaren-Merecedes +0.269; 5 E Irvine (GB) Jaguar +0.419; 6 N Heidfeld (Ger) Sauber-Petronas +0.440; 7 H-H Frentzen (Ger) Prost-Acer +0.471; 8 P de la Rosa (Sp) Jaguar +0.530; 9 R Schumacher (Ger) Williams-BMW +0.532; 10 J P Montoya (Col) Williams-BMW +0.596; 11 K Raikkonen (Fin) Sauber-Petronas +0.640; 12 J Alesi (Fr) Jordan-Honda +0.670; 13 J Button (GB) Benetton-Renault +0.799; 14 J Trulli (It) Jordan-Honda +0.828; 15 O Panis (Fr) BAR-Honda +0.981; 16 T Enge (Cz Rep) Prost-Acer +1.380; 17 G Fisichella (It) Benetton-Renault +1.524; 18 J Villeneuve (Can) BAR-Honda +1.612; 19 F Alonso (Sp) Minardi European +1.744; 20 E Bernoldi (Br) Arrows-Asiatech +2.062; 21 J Verstappen (Neth) Arrows-Asiatech +2.160; 22 A Yoong (Malay) Minardi European +2.931.