Juan Pablo Montoya turned his first laps in an Indy car in 13 years Monday during his first test with new team Penske Racing.
The test at Sebring International Raceway was Montoya’s first opportunity to get in his new car. He last drove in IndyCar in 2000, the year he won the Indianapolis 500 driving for Chip Ganassi.
Montoya spent seven seasons in NASCAR driving for Ganassi, but signed with rival Roger Penske in September to return to IndyCar when Ganassi decided not to bring the Colombian back for the 2014 season.
”I still don’t believe it that I’m here, to be honest with you,” Montoya said. ”I look at the car and everything, my name on the car. It’s really exciting. It’s nice because there’s been excitement (from) everybody that I’m coming back to open wheel.”
New Penske teammates Will Power and Helio Castroneves both attended the test, and Power prepared the car before turning the No. 2 over to Montoya. Also on hand was Penske adviser and four-time Indianapolis 500 winner Rick Mears.
Power was impressed with Montoya’s first 20 laps, which weren’t far off the pace Power set over 10 laps while shaking down the car in the morning. Montoya’s speed did not surprise his new teammate.
”You don’t win races in Formula One and poles in Formula One and races in the CART Series on your first try if you’re slow,” Power said. ”I actually expected to learn from him. He’s already brought some good ideas to the team even before he got in the car. Just from what I see from the data, he has a very similar style to me. The way he brakes and everything. That should be good as far as our setups.”
Added Castroneves: ”He felt really comfortable in the car. I wasn’t expecting anything different to be honest. He was really relaxed.”
Montoya described the first run as ”really, really weird,” because of all the personal adjustments he had to make to the car.
”The position of the wheel was really different. With a Cup wheel, you try to put it as low as you can, but it’s so big, the wheel is a lot higher, so getting comfortable is a little bit different,” said Montoya, adding that braking was difficult.
”You get on brakes and there’s a bit of lag while the brakes get hot. So it takes a while to get used to that, but you get used to it. We’re miles away from where I think I need to be, but second and third run it was going through the gears, through the motions. It’s just so different. It’s going to take a little bit of time.”
Montoya was grateful Castroneves, Power and so many people from the Penske organization were on hand.
”Really, everybody works together and is trying to get me up to speed as fast as I can,” Montoya said. ”The faster I get up to speed, the better it is for everybody.”
Montoya had modest goals for Monday: He wanted to get comfortable in the car and figure out what has changed since 2000, when he won the Indianapolis 500 driving for Ganassi.
”I’m not going out there to try and break the track record on the first lap,” he said. ”I’m going to build up to it and keep working on the car and get the car to do what I want. You learn that as you go through the years. When you are young, you drive the car anywhere it is. Then you realize you can make it drive for you, you can achieve the same things with half the effort.”
Montoya won seven races in CART and the Indy 500 in his two seasons competing in open wheel with Ganassi. Their run together also included the 1999 CART championship. He then moved to Formula One, where he spent six seasons before abruptly quitting to return to the United States to compete in NASCAR. He reunited with Ganassi, but the results never came.
Montoya won one Nationwide race in 2007, and had two Sprint Cup victories in 253 career starts. His last win in NASCAR was in 2010, a year after he made the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship and finished a career-best eighth in the standings.
At a fan event prior to his final NASCAR race earlier this month at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Montoya was blunt about his hopes for his move to IndyCar – ”I’m tired of sucking,” he said.
He’ll have an opportunity to be competitive with Penske, a consistent contender in IndyCar for both the series championship and at the Indy 500.
”He told us he’d drive anything in the building as long as it could win,” Penske team President Tim Cindric said at Sebring. ”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 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.”
Montoya said he’s not sure yet how he’ll define success in IndyCar.
”Do I want to win? Of course I want to win. Do I want to do the best I can? Yeah. How good is that going to be? I don’t know,” he said. ”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 it’s no big deal. This is their home, and I need to make this my home.”
Power, winner of 19 races since 2007 and a three-time runner-up in the IndyCar championship race, believes Montoya will be a strong addition to the Penske organization. Power hopes he can measure his own ability against Montoya.
”It’s cool to be a teammate to a guy that was successful in Formula One. I’ve been wanting someone like that to go up against and see where I’m at,” Power said. ”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. Even in CART, when you look at some of those qualifying laps at Detroit, he was a very fast solid good racer and driver.”
Cindric is hopeful Montoya can push both Power and Castroneves and get Penske another championship. Penske’s last IndyCar title was in 2006 with Sam Hornish Jr., and the team hasn’t won the Indy 500 since Castroneves in 2009.
Castroneves finished second to champion Scott Dixon this year, and Power was runner-up in 2010 through 2012.
”For us a team, we have to figure out how to put a whole season together,” Cindric said. ”There hasn’t been a race in the last how many years that I didn’t feel like we couldn’t win. 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. He’s learned a lot from his transition from Formula One to NASCAR. He hasn’t had a successful teammate and we’re going to be able to give him a gauge.”