When Juan Pablo Montoya announced last October that he would return to IndyCar racing for the first time since he left CART in 2000, there was much expected from the 2000 Indianapolis 500 winner. After all, he was joining Team Penske – the "Gold Standard" of this form of racing.
But 14 years have passed since Montoya was the youthful driver from Colombia that conquered CART and left for Formula One in 2001. He would remain in F1 until midway through the 2006 season when he made a sudden career change to drive for team owner Chip Ganassi in NASCAR.
Through the first eight races of the 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series season, Montoya has five finishes of 12th or worst. He was 15th in the season-opener at St. Petersburg, 21st at Barber Motorsports Park, 16th in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis, and 12th and 13th in the two-doubleheader races at Detroit.
"I haven’t been in Open Wheel in seven years," Montoya said. "I’m fricking good but I’m not a magician. You have to work on it and we are doing that and getting better. The other two drivers on the team are doing well, too, so that makes it fun.
"Long Beach and Indy were really good for us so I’m hopefully and optimistic that things are getting better for us."
There have been flashes of brilliance for the 1999 CART champion. He was fourth in the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, fifth in the Indianapolis 500 and third in IndyCar’s most recent race at Texas Motor Speedway on June 7 – the Firestone 600.
"I feel like we are going in the right direction," Montoya said. "I feel we are a lot closer on the ovals than the road courses. The road courses are going to be better for us than on the street courses. The street courses we start every practice and we are miles off the pace. We just have to do a little bit better job starting closer. We don’t think our setups are that far off but the little things make a big difference.
"Every time the car drives well, I do well. So we have to get the cars to drive well. When I get the car to do what I want, I’m quick."
Montoya enters Saturday’s first race of the Shell and Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston doubleheader seventh in points, 147 behind the leader and teammate Will Power.
"Will is really good and Helio has been around enough to understand things," Montoya said Friday. "We are going in the right direction but we are putting it all together. The more we run the better. It’s painful but, if you look back at 1999, every weekend we were miles off and we kept getting better and better and we were there. Here, we don’t have enough practice.
"You have to finish well and if you can’t win you have to score good points. I haven’t looked at the standings. I looked at them the other day but that was it. I don’t really pay much attention."
Montoya has found IndyCar’s doubleheader format rather problematic because he doesn’t believe there is enough practice time available to the teams and drivers. All three doubleheaders are held on temporary street courses including Belle Isle in Detroit, Houston’s NRG Park and next month’s doubleheader at Exhibition Place in Toronto.
That means track conditions change dramatically because they are not purpose-built racing facilities.
"To me the doubleheaders are very hard because we have so little practice," Montoya said. "The track was so green the first part of practice and then it starts getting better and then you try to figure out what is wrong and then, boom, you have to qualify.
"I only had 45 minutes out there and out of 45 minutes you probably get 20 minutes on the track and 25 minutes working on the car. We had a lot of issues the car was pulling to the right really bad so we were trying to figure out what it was. We changed shocks, we changed a lot of stuff and it got a little better at the end. I think it’s a process about learning the track and figuring out where to brake and what to do. The left-front tire was locking a lot. I don’t know why. It was making it pretty hard because I was more focusing on not going off than going fast. You get to the braking area the front tires smoke you are like ‘I will get off the brakes,’ I overdrove this corner, oh don’t hit the wall, it was one of those days. But it’s okay being the first session it is what it is. You are going to be a little bit behind. I’ve got some time to look at the data and understand a little more what they are doing and how we go from there."
When IndyCar competed on this course last year it was difficult to handle all the bumps in the road. Since that time, many of those bumps have been removed but Power had an issue in Friday morning’s practice session when he hit one of the curbs and that nearly launched his car airborne.
Montoya, however, shrugged when asked if he thought the course was bumpy.
"I don’t see what is the big deal," Montoya said. "The drivers were saying, ‘Oh it’s so bumpy, oh my God.’ It’s okay it’s just a race track. Is it bumpy? Yeah, but I think it’s fun. I think it’s got a lot of character. The only thing I don’t like is there are no apexes. The apexes are curves not walls. I don’t know why. I think the drivers all complained that ‘oh you don’t see, you don’t see,’ but I think that is the nature of a street course. That is where when you have an open apex it’s really easy to commit to the wall. When you don’t have an open apex and it’s a wall it makes it a lot harder for a driver and I think it makes it a lot more fun.
"It is not as bad as people you hear them talking ‘oh my God it’s so bumpy.’ Yeah, it’s a street course. I’ve never been bothered by stuff like that."
Montoya was 18th fastest of the 23 drivers that participated in Friday’s practice sessions on the 10-turn, 1.683-mile temporary street circuit with a time of 1:01.2273. Simon Pagenaud was the fastest driver of the session at 1:00.1415 for a speed of 97.809 miles per hour. He was followed by points leader Power at 1:00.4427 (97.322 mph), Ryan Briscoe’s 1:00.6428 (97.001 mph) and newcomer Lucca Fillipi at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing was third at 1:00.6735 (96.952 mph).
Another factor for this race is the heat and humidity that is expected over the weekend. Last October, it was very hot and humid for this event and it was moved to the end of June because of IndyCar’s most "compact schedule" that will end the season by August 30. That meant moving the Houston doubleheader to this weekend – a much warmer and more humid time of the year.
Montoya, however, is from Colombia and lives in Miami. He laughed at his teammate from Australia when he got out of car after Friday’s practice session.
"I got out of the car and looked at Will Power and he was sweating and I looked at him and asked, ‘Where have you been?’ This is nothing for me."
And with so many points available in this weekend’s doubleheader and next weekend’s double points for the Pocono INDYCAR 500 Fueled by Sunoco – Montoya knows that a hot streak can get him back into serious contention for the Verizon IndyCar Series championship.