Montoya's mystery: why magic and mayhem do not produce mastery

David Tremayne examines the enigma of the fiery Colombian who is preparing for Sunday's British Grand Prix

When Juan Pablo Montoya raced on America's ovals there was an adage: "There are two types of oval driver, one who's crashed into the wall, and one who is going to."

When Juan Pablo Montoya raced on America's ovals there was an adage: "There are two types of oval driver, one who's crashed into the wall, and one who is going to."

When the double champion Alex Zanardi prepared to leave Chip Ganassi's team to go to Williams (the seat that Montoya would eventually take over), he was asked to coach Montoya, his replacement, on the art of driving an oval at 205mph (330 kph). But after watching Montoya for only a few laps Zanardi said: "Shit, what does he need my advice for?"

Montoya was sensational, won the championship the next year, and stayed off the wall almost throughout his two-year IndyCar career. When he came to Formula One in 2001, many predicted that Michael Schumacher's reign was over.

But now here's Juan Pablo Montoya: international man of mystery. IndyCar racing champion; unfulfilled Formula One pretender. His critics say he can be lazy technically, and that he is not the full package that Schumacher is.

The first mystery is where all that synergy from America went, that preternatural ability to drive at warp speed while thumbing his nose at the laws of physics. The second is why things have not clicked at Williams-BMW, where Sir Frank Williams and Patrick Head champion the kind of driver who just jumps into their car and gives it one: Alan Jones, Keke Rosberg, Nigel Mansell. Montoya is a kindred spirit. But the technical chemistry has never really been right. There have been plenty of pole positions and several race wins. But there have been fights, and silly driving errors, too.

Sam Michael, now Williams' technical director, once famously compared Montoya unfavourably with Michael Schumacher in terms of their technical understanding, adding caustically: "Juan has got better and better, but now he needs to make a quantum leap. You can't just sit back and say that it's all down to the designers to get the best out of the car."

In France last year Montoya was incensed to be beaten by his team-mate, Ralf Schumacher, and believed the team had favoured Ralf. "You are a bunch of f***ing wankers," he told them over the radio. Sam Michael calmly replied, "No, Juan, you are the wanker." Montoya decided to head for McLaren for 2005.

Criticism of his technical appreciation, and the suggestion of a weakness compared with Michael Schumacher, clearly riles Montoya. He did, after all, lay down a marker to the German in only his third race with a stunning passing move in Brazil. And many times since he has taken the champion on, raced wheel to wheel with him, and come off better. He knows where he stands in any pure driving comparison. "I'll be honest with you," he begins, in his sing-song, high-pitched voice, "I don't understand what all the," - he pauses, briefly, to select the right word - "all the bollocks is about Michael. If we had the car he had, we could probably win the championship as well. I think you hear it every five minutes, and I get bored hearing how Michael does things, how Michael wins and you don't. I think Michael wins because he's got the car to win and we don't."

There is an arrogance about this Colombian, with his compact, muscular frame and short, cropped hair. But it is the arrogance people expect to see in their champions, the arrogance of a man going his own way because that is how he likes it. He is, however, constantly looking for ways to go faster.

"You learn something new every time you get in the car," he says. "I can go and drive the car and tell the engineers what I think, but it's up to them to go through everything and find the car's sweet spot.

"You are always gonna learn more about getting the maximum out of the car, but that's completely the opposite of what the others are saying, that I'm going too far. That I'm pushing too hard. If you really want to know where the limit is, you are gonna make mistakes, yeah? When you go over the limit, you say stop. I need to find where the limit is, so I know what the car's gonna do. But from everybody else I'm getting that I'm doing the wrong thing. I'm happy the way I'm driving. I'm always pushing the car hard and trying to go as fast as I can, and trying to maximise the lap. If I don't know how to maximise the car and I put it seven times on pole in 2002, then I don't know what you call maximising the car anyway."

As he prepares for the British Grand Prix at Silverstone on Sunday, Montoya might not have everyone in the team pulling for him, but he is respected as a plain speaker in a sport desperate for drivers who tell it like it is. Take the relationship with Ralf Schumacher, for example. They detest one another. Ralf once dismissed him as a taxi driver, picking up the art of outpsyching a team-mate from brother Michael but applying it with the clumsiness of a plasterer rather than the dexterity of a gouache artist.

"The relationship hasn't changed!" Montoya exclaims with a what-do-you-expect laugh. "There is none! We work with the engineers and that's it. I've said it before: I don't have anything against Ralf, but we just don't have anything in common."

Next year he will partner the ice man Kimi Raikkonen at McLaren, where they are convinced they can "control" the Colombian to get more out of him. They like everything just so and have not had an outspoken driver since the days of Ayrton Senna. Fireworks are predicted.

"I don't think we want to take Juan Pablo and drain out of him the things that drive him on and make him passionate," says the team principal, Martin Whitmarsh. "But Juan Pablo is smart enough that he will want to make himself better. He's got to do it himself, but how can we foster and assist that? Maybe we'll fail and there'll be a huge clash, but I don't think we will."

Sir Frank Williams will be sorry to see Montoya go, and summarises his future succinctly. "Certainly Juan has had the technical lecture from all of the senior members of the team independently, but he has got to work that part out for himself. That is the bridge he has to cross, to respect the challenge around him and to react accordingly."

THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY... MONTOYA'S TURBULENT TIME IN FORMULA ONE

THE GOOD

In the 2003 European GP at Nürburgring, on the approach to Turn 7, Montoya slips outside Michael Schumacher for second place. As Montoya turns in, Schumacher's Ferrari rides the kerb then slips off it, tagging the Williams and spinning. Montoya takes a lot of flak, but it's a blameless, textbook move.

THE BAD

In pre-qualifying at Magny-Cours in the recent French GP, Montoya in the Williams is quicker than anyone else. But he qualifies only sixth and finishes a lacklustre eighth, after a spin. He complains of race-long neck pains. "Bollocks," a team insider retorts. "He had to have some excuse after a drive like that."

THE UGLY

Going into the first corner at Indianapolis during the 2002 US GP, the seemingly inevitable happens and Williams team-mates Ralf Schumacher and Montoya collide. The race is lost, and the two drivers later indulge in a screaming match in the pit garage, each blaming the other.

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