Juan Pablo Montoya took his first turn behind the wheel of one of Roger Penske’s IndyCars this past Tuesday at Sebring International Raceway. New teammates Helio Castroneves and Will Power were both on hand to deliver advice and, in the case of Power, to shake down the car before JPM’s first hot laps.
The event was big news in the IndyCar community with outlets sending reporters to cover the event and series officials even starting an official hashtag that Twitter users could use to follow along. The test went well by all reports: Montoya ended up only a few tenths of a second off the pace of Power after seven years out of the cockpit.
All this ensured that the discussion was once again brought up by many in the IndyCar community as to whether Montoya would be the driver to bring IndyCar back from the brink, “move the needle,” and help resuscitate IndyCar’s lagging television ratings.
It’s a familiar call and one that seems to resurface whenever long lost stars of the series return, or when Formula One refugees decide to come play in the States. It is happening now with Montoya and will surely be brought up again if F1 drivers Paul Di Resta or Sergio Perez head over to this side of the pond. IndyCar fans always seem to be on the lookout for the next Nigel Mansell type crossover to come along and rescue the series.
I think that by and large we are getting way ahead of ourselves in anointing JPM as the next great IndyCar star. In my opinion, the question we should be asking is whether Montoya can even be competitive on a regular basis after his long open-wheel layoff.
Sounds absurd, right? How can I say such a thing about a man who won the Indy 500 in his only start and won 10 times in only 40 starts in CART?
I thought so, too, until I delved deeper into the numbers behind some of IndyCar’s other recent imports. Those numbers show that JPM may not be the sure thing we think he will be.
Takuma Sato. I’ll touch on Sato first. The speedy Japanese import’s performance last year went a long way toward weakening my argument, but it’s not quite there yet.
Takuma drove seven seasons in Formula One before coming to the IndyCar Series in 2010. Sixty-eight starts later and Sato has one win (Long Beach this year) and three poles. But aside from Sato’s improved performance this year, the glaring fact remains that Sato has only four podium finishes in IndyCar and, despite his flashes, his average finishing position in IndyCar is 16.5, while he managed an average finish of 13.5 in his time in Formula One driving for midfield teams Jordan, BAR, and Super Aguri.
Rubens Barrichello. As recently as last year, Barrichello was touted by many as a future champion in IndyCar. Surely his vast experience racking up 11 wins and 14 poles in Formula One from 1993 to 2011 would allow him to come in and crush his competition in America, right?
Wrong. Barrichello showed promise at times, but his lack of familiarity with the cars and the tracks led to zero wins, zero poles, and zero podiums in 14 races. Barrichello also posted a worse average starting (12.7 to 8.9) and finishing (11.9 to 10.1) position in his short time here. Barrichello left IndyCar to return to his native Brazil and campaign stock cars in 2013, where he again went winless while running a full season effort.
AJ Allmendinger. First things first: I’m a card carrying, dyed in the wool AJ Allmendinger apologist, and I don’t try to hide that fact. When he was the one in a highly touted Penske test last year at Sebring, I hung on every snippet of information that came out. I truly thought the Dinger would be the man to come back to open-wheel and bring in some interest from outside sources while competing for wins week in and week out. And he almost proved me right in May. If not for a loose seat belt at the Brickyard, I wouldn’t even be writing this article. But the facts are that Allmendinger’s season was overall one to forget.
Allmendinger made six starts and only saw the checkered flag at two events, most notably crashing out of both Detroit rounds on lap one. He posted an average starting position of 9.3 and an average finish of 19.2, far cries from the 5.3 and 7.3, respectively, that he posted in Champ Car while racking up five wins, two poles, and 14 podiums in only 40 starts.
This may just be the fan in me talking, but I still think Allmendinger could have been a success in open-wheel cars again. His split schedule this year between NASCAR, IndyCar, and GRAND-AM probably doomed any chances of being truly competitive. The fact is that the IndyCar Series hosts too much talent front to back for anyone to compete who is not truly committed to the full season.
Sebastien Bourdais. Speaking of Champ Car stars, perhaps no one illustrates the point better than SeaBass. Bourdais owned the Champ Car World Series from 2003 to 2007, taking 31 wins and 31 poles in only 73 starts while rolling to four consecutive championships. Sebastien had an average starting position of 2.7 and an average finish of 5.2 before leaving for the “greener” pastures of Formula One with Toro Rosso.
But Bourdais has yet to recapture the magic since his return. Flashes of speed have been offset by accidents and missteps that have raised the ire of his fellow drivers, even provoking Will Power’s famous “champ to chump” comment after the second Dual at Detroit.
In 40 starts since his return, Bourdais has been unable to capture a single pole or victory and has collected only three podiums with an average finishing position of 14.3.
None of this is to say that Montoya won’t be successful in his latest stint in IndyCar. In fact, with his pedigree of success in road course racing across three elite series (11 CART/IRL wins, three NASCAR victories, and seven Formula One wins), Montoya is set for success more so than any driver to come to IndyCar since Mansell. But a steep learning curve will almost assuredly greet the Colombian as he returns to open-wheel racing after seven years in stock cars.
IndyCar fans would be wise to adjust their expectations before the season starts, lest we be let down by yet another returnee who fails to deliver to our expectations.