Montoya ignites speculation about stop-start career

When Juan Pablo Montoya stalled his McLaren-Mercedes while trying to leave the pits here yesterday afternoon, the sight of him running for a jack to haul the car back to his pit garage introduced some much-needed levity into an otherwise inert Malaysian Grand Prix practice session. It was also symbolic of how the once highly rated Colombian's career appears to be going through a stop-start patch.

Last year there was the celebrated shoulder injury that he suffered in April. Perhaps it really was sustained in a tennis match, perhaps he really did fall off a motorcycle while attempting a jump. Either way, his season was compromised. When your team-mate is the ice cold Kimi Raikkonen, a monosyllabic metronome who appears impervious to psychological warfare, you do not give up such ground willingly, and Montoya's lack of fitness as a result of the injury put him in a vulnerable position.

Then there were errors of judgement that saw him clash with two back-markers: Tiago Monteiro in Turkey and Antonio Pizzonia in Belgium.

This season has already begun on a nervous note, with Montoya declaring his availability next season to anyone who is interested and his team boss, Ron Dennis, calling his bluff publicly.

In some circles, Red Bull is the favoured destination for the Colombian. "Juan Pablo seems to have applied himself more at McLaren, where he has had a harder team-mate to beat," their team principal, Christian Horner, said yesterday. "I think if somebody were to give him the right environment and get inside his head, he has so much more ability to exploit.

"McLaren do not seem to be a natural fit for him, but it will be interesting to see if he develops further in 2006. He is a very quick lad and will be a factor over the next few years."

While this might appear to be an endorsement of Montoya, Horner added: "At the moment, to be honest, I can't see that he would give us anything more than we already have. Our line-up is very good. David [Coulthard] is still very motivated, and Christian [Klien] is a youngster who has to deliver this year."

Red Bull also have Tonio Liuzzi waiting in the wing, and their newly signed chief technical officer, Adrian Newey, and others in the team rate him highly. Red Bull are the team to keep tabs on as they develop further after increasing their technical investment significantly in recent months, but they also have a history of developing their own driving talent. Montoya has a reputation as a prima donna, and they may not want that.

More likely, then, may be for him to take the seat at Renault that will be vacated by the world champion, Fernando Alonso, who is the only confirmed driver at McLaren for 2007. Sponsor Telefonica would doubtless welcome a Spanish speaker and Flavio Briatore may feel that he can tame the man from Bogota, though the Italian has a history of aversion to paying drivers what they believe themselves to be worth. An outside possibility may be to take Jarno Trulli's seat at Toyota. They could certainly afford Montoya, but that would not go down well with contracted incumbent Ralf Schumacher.

Yesterday it was the Briton Anthony Davidson in the spotlight as Honda's Friday test driver, the 26-year-old redeeming himself after an early spin to set the fastest time ahead of Williams' tester Alex Wurz, Fernando Alonso, Felipe Massa and Raikkonen. Montoya was only 14th, six places behind Britain's Jenson Button. Today, it will doubtless be different.

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