Juan Pablo Montoya was one of F1’s biggest stars of the early 2000s, and one of the few Colombians ever to make it to the ultimate stage of motorsport. While his career ended earlier than expected after just five and a half years, the headstrong, bullish racer refuses to live life anywhere else but the fast lane.
His potential was noticed early by Williams F1, who employed him as a test driver in 1997 and 1998. He wasn’t able to break onto the scene via testing, so instead he struck a deal with Target Chip Ganassi in 1999 to replace champion Alessandro ‘Alex’ Zanardi (who went to Williams).
The Colombian, unfazed by his new surroundings, clinched the CART Series championship on a tiebreaker ahead of Scotsman Dario Franchitti.
His title defence was a shambles as he struggled to finish races, but as a part-time entry into the 2000 Indy 500 (ran by the Indy Racing League as opposed to CART), he comfortably won the prestigious event at his first time of asking.
Sir Frank Williams and co. were quick to re-sign the hotshot Montoya in 2001 to partner Ralf Schumacher. Sadly, Juan Pablo was an almost regular fixture on the retirements list, rather than on the podium (including a stretch of 8 retirements in the first 10 races).
His incredible overtake on Michael Schumacher at Interlagos and a maiden win at Monza were indications that he was the real deal.
2002 was a damage limitation season for anybody who was not wearing the colours of the mighty Scuderia. Juan Pablo, while not able to triumph in either of Ferrari’s bad days, set seven pole positions and scored enough points to finish third in the Driver’s Championship.
Montoya enjoyed his best ever season in 2003, recovering from a patchy start to record eight consecutive podiums from victory at Monaco all the way to Italy.
This left the Colombian three points behind Michael Schumacher and gave Williams-BMW a narrow Constructors’ title lead with two rounds left. The Grove based team capitulated at the final hurdles but held off McLaren in the Constructors.
Williams’ well recited decline began in 2004, which saw Montoya’s team-mate Ralf Schumacher suffer a serious accident and other teams like BAR-Honda and Renault shine. Montoya would depart to McLaren at the end of the season but not without earning a new top average speed record (262.24kmh/162.9mph at Monza) and winning his final Williams race at the Brazilian Grand Prix.
Montoya often let his emotions get the better of him in his first year at his new team (i.e. breaking a red light in the pits, returning early from an injury, dive-bombing Ralf Schumacher in Monaco practice). Nevertheless, he still won three Grands Prix but couldn’t quite manage assist his team-mate Kimi Räikkönen in the title race.
In 2006, Montoya recorded two podiums but retired more often than not, with his frustrations hitting boiling point when he was eliminated in a first corner nine-car pileup at the US Grand Prix. He ended up prolonging his stay Stateside by declaring interest in a brand-new challenge – NASCAR.
His old friend Chip Ganassi swiftly stepped in to prepare the Colombian for stock car racing. Montoya initially cut his teeth in ARCA events, before being promoted to the NASCAR Busch Series (one step below the top class Sprint Cup). He was deemed ready to run in the Cup at the season ending Homestead-Miami race (classified 34th after a crash).
Before starting his first full-time Cup season, Montoya joined Scott Pruett and Salvador Durán in the 2007 24 Hours of Daytona sportscar race. Once more, Juan Pablo was a debut winner with Ganassi equipment underneath him (he would also go on to win the 2008 and 2013 events).
Assigned to the #42 Texaco-Havoline Dodge, Montoya made a reasonable start to his career with two Top Tens in his first seven starts, but suffered a barren run.
Come the first road course event at Sonoma, California, Montoya was the overwhelming favourite to win. He spectacularly drove from near the back in qualifying to win – the first non-North American ever to win a Cup event (Italian-American Mario Andretti was born in Europe but earned U.S. citizenship).
Apart from a runners-up spot at Indianapolis, Montoya often was left wanting at the majority of oval tracks and took a 20th place finish in the championship. However, he received the Rookie of the Year award for his troubles.
2008 was a mediocre season for Montoya – winless and devoid of consistency. A second place at Talladega’s spring event was a rare glimmer of hope, while he was in the Top Ten at both road courses.
The recession had an adverse effect on Montoya’s team heading into the 2009 season. The Dale Earnhardt Inc. squad were also in bad shape, so they negotiated a merger with Ganassi and ran Chevrolet cars.
Juan Pablo didn’t focus on the uncertainty and raised his game significantly – so much so that he qualified for the 10-race Chase for the Cup. Montoya initially capitalised on the fresh start with some excellent Top Fives, but poor results in most of the remaining races dropped him to eighth the final classification.
He won his second and final Cup race in 2010 at Watkins Glen, New York, but could never match his ’09 form necessary to reach the Chase. In the 2012 Daytona 500, Montoya retired from the race in bizarre circumstances.
Preparing to catch up with the rest of the field in the caution period, the #42 car’s rear suspension collapsed and spun into a jet dryer mounted on a safety vehicle. Incredibly, Montoya exited the flaming wreck unaided, hardly able to believe his luck.
His final Top Five in the Cup came in the 2013 Bristol night race but he was not awarded a new deal.
Team Penske signed the Colombian to a full-time IndyCar drive (and a part-time NASCAR schedule) in 2014. He had a yo-yo first half of the season as, among other things, he put up his perfect Indy 500 record but took home a satisfactory fifth place finish.
He won for the first and only time at Pocono, and a strong finish to the campaign saw him fourth in the standings. The highly-regarded Frenchman Simon Pagenaud has been signed to Penske to join JPM, new champion Will Power and veteran Hélio Castroneves.
Can Montoya stamp his authority in the Penske dream team in 2015 and become a champion again?