Monday, July 17, 2006

Monty This Seems Strange To Me.....

Every now and again, a new driver appears in Formula One who immediately captures the world's attention. Whose very presence just has 'future star' written all over it. Most recently it has been the turn of Rosberg-fils, and one way or another, one just knows it will be Lewis Hamilton's turn next.

Sometimes, these young guns more than live up to their initial promise - Michael Schumacher's explosive debut for Jordan at Spa in 1991 caught everyone's attention, but did we honestly think he would ultimately win more races than Senna and Prost combined? Other times, that initial pace turns out to be a flash in the pan, deceptive with the benefit of hindsight. Who would have thought that Jean Alesi's early drives for Tyrrell would translate into just a single win in a career which descended into midfield anonymity.

Step back five years to the beginning of 2001 and it was not the first steps of the ultimately more successful Kimi Raikkonen or Fernando Alonso which caught everyone's attention but that of flamboyant Colombian Indy 500 winner and Champ Car champion, Juan Pablo Montoya. With a Williams BMW at his disposal, he had a car in which he could make an immediate impact and he wasted little time in getting down to business. In only his third Grand Prix, at Interlagos, he passed Michael Schumacher for the lead in an audacious move into turn 1, giving the German Meister no quarter, and remained there until he was removed by a lapped Jos Verstappen, who misjudged his braking into Turn 3 and clobbered the back of the Williams. Its hard to think of a more effective way for a young talent to make an impression. He would go on to win his first Grand Prix later in the year at Monza, having come close on a number of earlier occasions. With his carefree, insouciant extrovert persona, Montoya seemed a throwback to an earlier age - and some older journalists who admired his fighting spirit on track saw more than a hint of Gilles Villeneuve about him.

Six years on, Montoya's career in F1 has ended in ignominy and controversy - parting company "by mutual agreement" with McLaren mid-season having been comprehensively outdriven by his Finnish team mate, with whom he clumsily collided in his final Grand Prix. Underlying the decision, it seems, is a judgment on Ron Dennis' part that Pedro De La Rosa, or maybe even Gary Paffett or Lewis Hamilton, would more reliably rack up the points for the team in the constructors championship.

So where did it all go wrong? Was he simply found wanting at the highest level, or did Monty get a raw deal? The answer, it seems to me, lies somewhere inbetween. Make no mistake: when the conditions were right, it is doubtful that there was anyone who was outright faster than Montoya. In the second half of 2005, he got the upper hand on pace over Kimi Raikkonen, and I don't think there's many on the Grand Prix grid who could ever stand a chance of achieving that. In 2002, he scored 7 pole positions without the benefit of a Ferrari F2002 - a quite remarkable achievement. And in 2003, in only his third season of Formula 1, he made himself a very serious contender for the driver's championship.

The manner in which he put himself out of the 2003 championship though, speaks volumes for Montoya's ultimate limitation as a driver. With a serious shot at Schumacher for the title, with 2 races to go, he got over-aggressive with Rubens Barrichello on the opening lap, ran him off the road, and picked up a penalty from which he would not recover. Even his fans (among whom, I must confess I number) have to admit that Montoya's career has been littered with silly errors, either forced and under pressure, or seemingly without explanation. The crash at Indianapolis was only the most recent of many. There was the last lap spin out of second place in Turkey last year, the unnecessary collision with Antonio Pizzonia in the Belgian Grand Prix, spins in both the 2005 and 2006 Spanish Grands Prix. Most Grand Prix drivers make mistakes from time to time (though Stirling Moss, Juan Fangio, and more recently, Alain Prost had very clean copybooks) but there can be little doubting that Montoya made more than most.

I have a hunch, and I'll not try to pretend that I have an awful lot of solid evidence to back it up, that on some level, Juan Montoya was ultimately psychologically unsuited to being a top level racing driver. It has been said by a number of observers (including Berenice Krikler, the only person I know of who has ever done a detailed psychological study of racing drivers) that the best racing drivers are usually introverts, by nature. Why? Well some evidence suggests that introverts are generally able to concentrate to a greater degree of intensity, and for longer, on a particularly demanding task. And Race car driving, perhaps more than any other sport, requires intense concentration without respite for up to two hours at a time. No other sport gives its participants so little time off. Footballers are occasionally off the ball, tennis players take a break between points (and a longer one between games, and a longer one still between sets), Cricket players only really have to concentrate for a few seconds every couple of minutes when the bowler is doing his stuff. Racing drivers get, at best, a couple of seconds respite from their task each lap on some of the tracks with longer, less involving straights. Juan Montoya is emphatically not an introvert - rather he is perhaps the most outspoken and extrovert guy in the paddock - at least if one pretends that Flavio isn't there (we can dream eh?). And maybe its coincidence, maybe there's nothing in my theory, but he does seem to have problems with staying focused on the job.....

I feel like I'm on more certain ground in saying that, whatever you make of the amateur psychology above, Juan Montoya was the wrong man to be a McLaren driver. When Ron Dennis signed Montoya he remarked that "we know how to get the best out of South American drivers" and I was left wondering if he was blinkered, or merely disingenuous. Surely he knew that Montoya and Senna were very different characters?

McLaren have always preferred drivers who towed the company line, who said the right things to the sponsors, and who, if necessary, were prepared to sacrifice their own interests to that of the team. All of which goes some way to explaining why the employed David Coulthard for so long, even though he was manifestedly not the quickest driver they could get their hands on. Montoya, on the other hand, had fallen out with Williams after accusing them of favouring Ralf Schumacher (something which was decidedly unlikely, given how little the German was liked at Grove) and had a reputation for being a hot-head with a tendency to open his mouth before always having ensured that his brain was in gear. As with Dennis' shotgun marriage to Nigel Mansell in 1995, it never seemed a match likely to last, and sure enough, it didn't.

So now Montoya is off to America, and the altogether different world of NASCAR. Those with a vested interest will claim that this is evidence that NASCAR is becoming a global phenomenon - a threat to F1. But this is nonsense - outside of the USA NASCAR remains very much a minority interest and the arrival of an out-of-work Columbian in a midfield team isn't going to change that. No, Montoya is in NASCAR because he couldn't find a worthwhile F1 seat.

And yet still it seems a strange move to me. Oval racing tends not to reward flamboyant, oversteer-happy driving, instead favouring those with patience and an eye for detail. It seems, in short, more the sort of thing that Kimi Raikkonen, or even Fernando Alonso, might excel at given the chance. But Montoya? I wouldn't have him down as a natural oval racer, though in his favour, he'll probably handle the traffic involved in 42 car NASCAR races as well as any F1 driver. Chip Ganassi's team is no NASCAR frontrunner, and in oval racing as much as in F1, the driver can only make so much of difference if the car isn't there. Was this really a better bet than taking the chance to rebuild his F1 career with a year in a midfield team?

Maybe so, but either way, to my mind, its our loss. Montoya may not have been a driver with Alonso, Schumacher or Raikkonen's ultimate class, but he was immensely entertaining on track, and off track he was a rare flash of colour in an increasingly corporate and monochrome F1 paddock. He will be much missed.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

JPM has plenty of oval experience from his time in ChampCar and IRL - including winning the Indy500. And it seemed to suit his oversteer style according to comments I remember de Ferran making.
So while single seaters are quite different to stock cars I'm sure his experience will be a great help.

1:45 AM  

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