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Montoya gets down to work in IndyCar

26 November 2013

Just a week after his final NASCAR Sprint Cup Series outing, Juan Pablo Montoya was back behind the wheel on Monday at a cool and windy Sebring International Raceway in Florida, but in a very different type of car.

Rather than the heavy, enclosed stock cars that he's become used to after seven years of racing in NASCAR, this week saw him return to the type of high-speed open-wheel car in which he made his name in CART and F1, as the 38-year-old Colombian got his first taste of a modern IndyCar ahead of his return to the series in 2014 with Team Penske.

His new team mate Will Power did the initial runs in the car to provide an initial set-up and baseline, and then it was over to Montoya - who was soon up to speed, impressing the team with how quickly he was able to start putting in comparable times despite his long time away from this type of car.



"For a first day, I'd give myself an eight. I'm surprised the speed has been pretty good, just a few too many mistakes," was Montoya's summary at the end of his first test. "Just a bit sloppy. It's understandable for a first day.

"It's been a pretty windy day and kind of cool, so it's been actually really good," he continued. "We worked a lot on the car and getting to where I'm comfortable with the car.

"I'm trying to get the car to work for me. The biggest thing is that everything is still happening really fast. It's okay but as it's happens so fast you end up making mistakes," he explained. "More time in the car and everything will slow down and it will be easier. That's kind of normal and it's happened to me before a few times, so I know that with time everything will be easier. I'm happy."

Penske Racing President Tim Cindric was overseeing the test, and liked what he saw of Montoya's first day at the office. As the session was a private test put together purely to give Montoya some track time in his new car, there were no official times released at the end of the day but Cindric confirmed that Montoya "was within a few tenths of Will in the first outing."

"It was pretty impressive, really we put him out on old tyres just to learn where the gear shifts were and then put him back on Will's tyre and he was within a couple tenths right out of the box," Cindric elaborated. "Right now it's happening pretty fast, but the last half a second, he's probably a half a second off the guys who were here last week, but that's not too bad. Finding the last half second without losing his confidence will be the challenge."

When Montoya learned he was being ousted from his Sprint Cup seat at Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing (in favour of a 21-year-old rookie named Kyle Larson), Montoya had made it clear that whatever he decided to do next it would be somewhere that he had a realistic prospect of winning races on a regular basis, after a spell in NASCAR that saw just two victories in seven seasons.

"I'm tired of sucking," Montoya told fans at a farewell event at Homestead-Miami Speedway last weekend, and it's clear that the need for wins is why he chose Roger Penske's offer to race in IndyCar as he confirmed on Monday.

"Of course I want to win," he said. "Do I want to do the best I can. Yeah. How good is that going to be? I don't know. You have to beat Will, who is one of the fastest guys in the series. Helio has a ton of experience. I ran against him when I won the championship, and he's still doing it. For them to get in the car every day, this is there home, and I need to make this my home.

"What appealed to me is running for Roger and being in winning cars," he continued. "To have the chance to work with Will and Helio and everyone at Penske Racing, it was a no-brainer.

"What's amazing and great is the people at Team Penske," he added. "Their dedication and people are unbelievable. I'm honoured to be here. Gil de Ferran told me that you will not believe when you work with these people and he wasn't kidding. Every person on this team cares. It's pretty unbelievable."

Switching to Penske also gives Montoya the scope to race for the organisation in sports cars, and potentially even a few outings back in NASCAR if he chooses to, just to keep his hand in.

Inevitably, many questions after his run at Sebring centred on comparing the IndyCar and NASCAR experience and the different type of cars used by both.

"It's just so different, it's going to take a little bit of time," said Montoya. "Like Will says, when he understeers he can feel in the friggin' wheel that he's losing the front end of the car. 'I'm like, 'You don't know what sliding is. You should drive a Cup car. That's like 10 percent of what I'm used to.' It's fun.

"At the same time, you end up trying too hard," he explained. "The couple of places I started good, I'm trying to roll through fast and killing the exits. I have to get to a point where I'm actually comfortable to understand and know the limits of the car."

"My biggest concern was the [steering] wheel and how heavy was it going to be," he added. "The good thing is we're here and it's not that bad yet. You can tell that we started on old scuff tires and the steering was really light, but then we put new tires on and I was like, 'Oh, OK that's what they mean.' It hasn't been that bad."

It's not just in the car itself that Montoya has to get used to some changes - even out of the cockpit, the language of the sport is subtly different.

"Understeer, oversteer ... raised the trackbar," he laughed. "Not a hauler, a transporter. I haven't got that one yet! The main goal is to run good and make Team Penske proud of having me here. It's a great opportunity that Roger has given me and I want to make the most of it."

But most of all, the big takeaway impression from Monday was the sight of Montoya looking happier in and around a race car than he has done for years. "Yeah, huge smile, ear-to-ear, every lap," he admitted afterwards.

And the rest of the Penske team that turned out for the test looked pretty pleased too - even those members who will have to race against Montoya out on the track once the 2014 season gets under way in March in St Petersburg.

"He's going to be an addition to the team, for sure," said Helio Castroneves, who competed against Montoya back in the CART days. "He's going to be an addition. So I'm excited to see him here ... I'm sure a lot of people are going to be excited to have him back and see him as well."

"You don't win races in F1 and poles in F1 and races in the CART Series on your first try if you're slow," said Will Power. "I actually expected to learn from him. He's already brought some good ideas to the team even before he got in the car

"I know he's going to be bloody quick, and with quick team mates, that just raises the bar [because] you just learn from each other," Power added. "It was exactly what I expected him to do when he got in the car. I didn't expect anything less."

It was the first time that Power had met Montoya, and the Australian said that he was looking forward to having someone bringing experience of F1 racing to the team. "To me, it's cool to be a team mate to a guy that was successful in F1. I've been wanting someone like that to go up against and see where I'm at. To me it's great - when I was younger he was one of the guys I looked at as the best when I was trying to get to that level."

Everyone at Penske is hoping that Montoya will provide that final edge that's been missing form the team's IndyCar outings in recent years and help propel them to the 2014 title.

"For us a team, we have to figure out how to put a whole season together," said Cindric. "There hasn't been a race in the last how many years that I didn't feel like we couldn't win. As long as you have that you have a good thing.

"[But] trying to understand that championship mentality is something we failed the last four, five six years. We should have half the championships from that span, but we don't. Maybe Juan can bring us that kind of mentality."

Not that Cindric was getting ahead of himself, he insisted. ""I think it's a really early days. With Juan, he's a quick learner, for sure. I think the difference is going to be getting him to understand what it takes to win. I think somebody like Will really understands not only how to go fast, but how to save fuel; when to save fuel; who your competitors are. Which ones you can trust, which ones you can't.

"I don't care who you are, it's going to take some time to learn those nuances. One strength that Juan has is that he's mentally tough. He doesn't let the little things bother him much. I think he takes a pretty simple approach and I think that could pay off for him in the series."


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