Montoya rates Indy win in his top two
NÜRBURG, Germany Five years after winning the Indianapolis 500, Juan Pablo Montoya is in Germany trying to win his first Grand Prix with West McLaren Mercedes.
His 2005 season got off to a slow start with car woes plus a shoulder injury that kept him out of two races and hampered him in a third. Also, the car changed considerably during his time out of the cockpit, and only now is he getting back into the groove.
"In the first few races of the season the momentum was building up nicely for me," Montoya told ESPN.com, "but the shoulder injury brought me back a lot. And now the momentum is coming back.
"In a way it is nice to see Kimi [Raikkonen] winning, but it is also frustrating because I know I have the pace to do that as well. I have to be patient. He has been driving the car for four years and I have been driving it for four races."
Raikkonen's dominating win in Spain and Monaco proved that the 2005 McLaren MP4-20 is a winner. Montoya has yet to fully unlock that potential. His best finish this year before the European Grand Prix was fourth in Malaysia.
"I am limited by the way the car handles," Montoya said. "We have done a lot of work on the set-up and tried to work around the problem. It seems that Kimi can cope with understeer easier than I can. An understeering car limits my lap time especially on new tires."
Inadequate testing and practice laps haven't helped Montoya. Five years ago he had nearly the entire month of May to dial in his car for the Indy 500.
"It's strange when you spend a month going around the same place, especially when there are only four corners, and you spend a whole month fine-tuning the car, and just working, for a 200-lap race," Montoya said.
Montoya rates his Indy 500 win and his 2003 Monaco Grand Prix win as the two best victories of his career.
The shoulder injury he suffered (playing tennis he says) delayed his chances of winning his first Grand Prix for McLaren in 2005. He sat out the races in Bahrain and San Marino and then made a painful comeback in Spain.
While Raikkonen won in Spain, Montoya finished seventh and one lap down.
"The Barcelona race was a nightmare," Montoya recalled. "I was telling the team to tell Kimi to lap me, and I was backing out as much as I could because I thought one lap less would be better for my shoulder."
The main reason Montoya raced in Spain is that he wanted to get a good result to get a good spot in the qualifying line-up for Monaco. If he made his comeback in Monaco he would have been the first person out to qualify on the dirty track. As luck would have it, a penalty for causing an accident in practice put Montoya at the back of the grid.
So how is the shoulder now?
"If 78 laps around Monaco does not test the shoulder nothing will," he said. "In Monaco, my arm was getting tired but it was 10 percent of what I had in Spain."
Besides the shoulder problem, Montoya has had to adapt to a car that had been considerably updated since he last drove it.
"The suspension and aero and mechanical changed," he said. "The car behaves in a very different way that I have been used to. On old tires I am fine, but to get one lap out of the tires is difficult for me.
"It was hard. It was like when you go back to racing when you don't do any winter testing. It was tough because my testing laps were limited, and I couldn't do too many practice laps in the first race because of my shoulder. At Monaco it was better because we were on the pace straightaway and I could keep up with my shoulder."
Montoya's former Williams teammate Ralf Schumacher told him that he is having the same problem at Toyota. He cannot push the Toyota the way he used to push the Williams.
"I am having the same problems where you push the car one way and it tends to give up another way," Montoya said. "You just have to learn it. The test drivers have the advantage because they do so many miles that it helps."
Montoya has been doing plenty of laps in the F1 simulator at the McLaren factory to help get back in the groove.
As for the 500 back in the States, Montoya was the sensation at Indianapolis five years ago. This year, Danica Patrick has taken the Speedway by storm. Montoya is impressed because at first he wasn't fully convinced about her abilities.
"I saw her in a couple of races and she was doing a decent job but nothing great," he said. "Then I saw in a couple of practice days at Indy that she was up there, and I was kind of shocked. It's good to see. They [Rahal Letterman] have a really good car around Indy."
Dan Knutson covers Formula One for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.