Montoya groomed for world dominance

Williams expect Colombian recruit to break Schumacher-Hakkinen stranglehold next season

The circuit was new, the race a revival of an old favourite, but the underlying story of Sunday's United States Grand Prix here at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was just another episode in the two-star saga of Michael Schumacher v Mika Hakkinen.

The circuit was new, the race a revival of an old favourite, but the underlying story of Sunday's United States Grand Prix here at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was just another episode in the two-star saga of Michael Schumacher v Mika Hakkinen.

Since Hakkinen's maiden GP success in 1997, the Finn has been the only racer consistently able to challenge the man who took over Ayrton Senna's mantle as the F1 yardstick by which drivers are judged and by which they judge themselves.

Had Hakkinen's McLaren-Mercedes not expired due to engine failure just as he had slashed a hefty deficit to Schumacher to fewer than four seconds, the story of this year's world title fight might have been less predictable than it seems. But it would still not have done anything to change F1's current status quo.

What it needs most right now is somebody to challenge that. And that might be the man who stood in the pits and watched Schumacher speed to a crushing 42nd victory on what now seems an inexorable collision course with Alain Prost's all-time tally of 51: Juan Pablo Montoya. There has been no shortage of candidates for the irksome moniker of "The Next Senna". For a while Alex Zanardi was a possible contender after three brilliant years of IndyCar racing in America. Jarno Trulli and Jenson Button, the former kart racers who seem to have a propensity for colliding with one another of late, have also both been saddled with it.

Yesterday, following Sunday's second-lap shunt, Trulli said: "Jenson Button is really an idiot at the moment. He is driving like a crazy man. He was pushing me hard and he tried to outbrake me, but it was too late. He then collided with me and we went off... My race was effectively over at that point because of Button's big mistake. It's not the first time he's done that, and I think he needs to cool down because it can get very dangerous."

Now it is Montoya's turn to be weighed down. The 25-year-old from Bogota took over Zanardi's seat at Target Ganassi Racing, and his role as CART's pacesetter, dominating the championship last year in his rookie season. Seven pole positions and seven wins made him the youngest champion ever. Before that, he raced F3 and then F3000 in Europe. Those who saw his ability to find overtaking places at Monaco, of all places, still speak in awed tones. Gordon Kirby is not given to such things, but the hard-bitten journalistic doyen of the American circuit has seen enough race drivers in his three decades to know what makes a good one, and he has no doubts about Montoya.

"He is the best I have ever seen. And that includes Gilles Villeneuve and Keke Rosberg, who were the best road-racing F1 drivers I watched in North America. Montoya drives an oversteering car just like Gilles did, but he is more in control of it. He's not wild and crazy, he just hangs it out. I guess you'd say he is out of control but at the same time in control - he's always super smooth."

Sir Frank Williams finally got around to announcing at Indianapolis what the world has known most of the season: that Montoya will "replace" Button at Williams-BMW in 2001 as partner to Ralf Schumacher. The German is no slouch himself, but Kirby is not alone in feeling sorry for him. Montoya, they say, is going to get inside Schumacher's head right from the start. "He is very strong mentally," Kirby says. "The guy doesn't say much, he isn't much of an intellectual or a personality outside the team environment, but he just loves what he is doing. He's just a kid who is enjoying himself, and he can translate that into the team. He is a fantastic motivator. A straight-ahead, let's go, let's make it better kind of a guy."

Much has been made of the fact that Montoya's arrival is pushing Button off to Benetton-Renault for the next two seasons, and for the first time this weekend Williams finally revealed the course of events leading up to that. "My partner Patrick Head and I felt that we would make every effort to secure Juan; and that has happened. Regrettably, I want to state, at Jenson Button's expense. And Jenson is going to be another great driver. We're sad he's had to go elsewhere for a period of time" - Button is contracted to Williams until 2005 - "but we had already made an unspoken commitment to Juan and we didn't intend to back out of it because suddenly it was inconvenient."

Williams played down his expectations of Montoya, but F1 team owners do nothing out of sentiment and he will be expected to race hard and to win. "Clearly he is a very talented driver and I don't think he's done anything but learn and improve by racing over here [the States] for two seasons. These cars, after all, have 900 horsepower, which is embarrassingly more than we have. Beyond saying those words, no-one can be exactly sure what his achievements may or may not be."

Montoya appears to have the right credentials thus far. He has won on all types of circuit, including the tough ovals, where lap speeds reach 240 mph. "I'd hesitate to say he is better than Ayrton Senna," Kirby concedes. "But he is certainly in that category and he is better than Michael." More than one vaunted hotshoe has gone cold at F1 level, but it is all food for thought for the man who looks increasingly likely to wear this year's crown. Not just for the challenge he faces, but for what may lie in wait for his brother, too.