An American insider will tell you that Juan
Pablo Montoya’s switch from Formula One to NASCAR racing is indicative of the
American category’s rising international appeal. The US media’s take on Montoya’s
not-so-shock announcement is that if a former Grand Prix and Indy 500 winner
wants to turn left 28 weekends of every year, for half the pay, the series must
be great.

Montoya, too, flashed his pearly-whites at
Chicagoland on Sunday and moaned that whenever he pulled off a dazzling passing
move in F1, “you’re (called) an animal”.

Back in Europe, however, Montoya’s star has
been fading ever since he reacted impetuously to an argument with his Williams
team at the French GP in 2003. After swearing bloody murder on the radio, he
was reprimanded for suggesting that the team’s race strategy unfairly favoured
teammate Ralf Schumacher. In that moment, Montoya recklessly decided to go to
McLaren, where in 2005 and 2006 he was ruined by the excellent Kimi Raikkonen.

Arguably, Juan Pablo – or “Waan
Montoya”, for those preparing to follow his progress on American TV – is a loss
to formula one. He was better behaved and ten kilograms lighter at McLaren, but his
true flair was in the days when fellow Spanish-speaking racers nicknamed him “El Gordo” (Fat Man).

Indy 500 triumphs aside, he wrought fear in the impassive
heart of Michael Schumacher by overtaking the great German within two races of
his F1 debut, but he never succeeded in backing up the flashes of brilliance
with Raikkonen-like consistency. On occasions, he could look plain bad.

And, as the guy who crashes on opening
laps, or the guy who is publicly scolded for never owning up to a mistake, or
the guy who couldn’t lead development of Williams’s car in 2004 while Ralf
Schumacher recovered from injury, Montoya’s options inside the F1 paddock were
almost terminally limited.

In reality, the 2007 driver market has
rarely been so open. Including McLaren, contractual vacancies exist at Renault,
Williams and BMW, not to mention Ferrari. Whispers of Montoya’s negotiations
with Red Bull and Toyota, however, were soon wheedled out as wishful thinking.

Indeed, David Coulthard baulked violently
at the prospect of sharing a team with Montoya. The Red Bull driver said: “I
can’t comment on rumours that he’s lazy.”

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey