MONACO & MONTOYA

MonacoSome time ago, I dared to ponder in writing whether Formula One had ‘outgrown’ Monaco. To date it has been about the most read thing I have yet to write, not because it was any good, mind, but rather because I had been brash enough to question the principality’s place on the Grand Prix calendar; it seems that to do so is akin to suggesting the Pope leave St Peter’s square and address his followers from a Starbucks’ car park.

The history and glamour of Formula One’s ‘crown jewel’ is one thing, but in era in which a depleting audience demands more excitement, more overtaking, more speed and more noise, I wondered if the awkward, tight and twisty circuit layout was really in keeping with the direction in which Formula One wants, maybe even needs, to head.

However, while Monaco may not permit drivers to stretch their cars to the extreme limits and over taking seldom happens, I failed to take into account the other palatable ingredient Monaco often provides: controversy.

The two Monaco Grand Prix that have come and gone since I so bravely suggested F1 move away from the Monegasque streets have proved to be the most controversial of their respective seasons. In 2014 the controversy came in qualifying when Nico Rosberg, under pressure but on provisional pole, ran straight on at Mirabeau, the right hand hairpin following Casino Square.

The ensuing flurry of yellow flags meant that Rosberg’s team-mate, Lewis Hamilton, behind him on track but on a flying lap, couldn’t improve his time and pinch pole position. The headlines come Monday morning were not of Rosberg’s second consecutive Monaco Grand Prix victory but were instead questioning whether his mistake in qualifying had actually been a mistake at all, or a crude, calculated way of baulking his team-mate and title rival.Rosberg

It took until the final 20-laps of this year’s event for controversy to once again cast its shadow over the sea-side paradise. Once Max Verstappen had launched his Torro Rosso into Ste Devote’s safety barrier via Romain Grosjean’s right rear Pirelli, the race, somewhat of a procession up to that point, came alive with a simple, baffling, strategy decision.

Behind the resultant safety car Hamilton’s needless pit stop, one that surrendered a race-long lead and handed victory to Rosberg, not to mention second place to Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel, will be something of a talking point for some time to come, I’m sure.

So why does Monaco, the slowest circuit on the Grand Prix calendar, one that lends itself to single-file racing, often cause a hubbub the likes of which only rarely occur elsewhere? It’s down to the significance of the venue…

The street circuit’s history, glitz and glamour, the sort of stuff that’s trotted out about the place upon every visit, makes victory there all the more desirable; it brings out the best and the worst in people. It’s unlikely that Rosberg will have ‘deliberately’ ran wide during qualifying at another venue, likewise Schumacher, in 2006, when he ‘parked’ his Ferrari in similar circumstances.

The physical challenges of Monaco, unique though they are, don’t measure up to the mental challenge, not just the concentration levels required, but the challenge of fighting those inner demons who tell you to do whatever it takes to win at Monaco, the most prestigious race of them all. It’s the same reasoning behind the distraught reactions of those who have victory on the streets taken from them; Hamilton’s body language said it all as he stood two steps lower than he deserved on Monaco’s unique podium. Likewise, Senna’s grumpy-child disappearing act following his crash from the lead in ’88.

For what desperation and emotion it conjures in drivers alone, Monaco deserves its place on the calendar, but is not alone in that standing; Silverstone, scene of the first ever Formula One Grand Prix, means more than many. Spa-Francochamps too, thanks to its own history and the challenge the undulating Belgian circuit presents. Interlagos and Suzuka perhaps. And what of Monza?

Remove Monza from the F1 calendar and it will appear weaker to the tune of two or three races, such is the significance of the ‘Cathedral of Speed’. And yet, now that Germany has lost it’s race (Hockenheim and Nurburgring, scarcely believable that neither of them feature on this year’s schedule) Monza is supposedly next for the chop.

It’s financial of course, the reasoning behind the threat, and I offer no solution – who can? Mr Ecclestone and the Grand Prix overlords, of course – all I can do is hope the allure of races such as Monaco and Monza win them over like they have for the rest of us.

One race free from the threat of extinction, and never too far away from excitement and controversy itself, is the impressive Indianapolis Motor Speedway, home since 1911 to the famed Indy 500. As is often the case the 200-lap loop of the speedway occurred on the same weekend as the Monaco Grand Prix, and the two are linked by more than just a clash of dates, for on Sunday, a previous winner of both asserted himself as a true threat to this year’s Indy Car title.

Juan Pablo Montoya featured heavily during the 99th running of the Indy 500, not least because he came from 30th position in the opening stages to win by a whisker over Penske team-mate Will Power. The Columbian’s charge through the field, calculated and aggressive in equal measure, proved that the 39-year old still possesses the ability to bring races alive.

Montoya Indy 2015On the race’s final restart, with just 16-laps to go, Montoya dipped his two left Firestone tyres onto the infield grass at close to 225mph, seconds later he re-passed Scott Dixon for second place. The moment had me on the edge of my seat like nothing that had come in the proceeding 184-laps. It was typical Montoya, ballsy and thrilling.

Montoya first claimed victory at the hallowed ‘Brickyard’ in 2000, the first time he had entered the great race – his 2015 victory makes it two wins from just three starts. The following year it was Montoya who disposed Jenson Button of his seat alongside Ralf Schumacher at Williams, where the Columbian made his Grand Prix debut with a bang.

In only his fifth race Montoya became a podium finisher, second at the Spanish Grand Prix behind eventual world champion Michael Schumacher, and by the end of July he was a race winner. Victory on the streets of Monaco wouldn’t come until 2003, the year of his only genuine championship challenge.

Despite his impressive start to his Grand Prix career, Montoya is rarely considered among the greats, largely due to that one and only championship challenge and an F1 career that withered and died with a whimper, having left McLaren before his time amid contractual arguments and a desired move to NASCAR.

But consider the following: his second Indy 500 victory is yet another feather in an already feather-filled cap. Montoya is the only driver to have won the former premier North American open-wheeled CART series, Indianapolis 500 (twice) and the famed 24 Hours of Daytona (three times!), each of which was won initially at the first attempt.

That CART title in 1999 made Montoya one of only two drivers to win in their debut year, putting the Columbian alongside Nigel Mansell as one of CART’s more memorable drivers. But more impressive is Montoya’s consistent ability to win during ‘cross-over’ years; in his first year of Formula One, CART, IndyCar, Grand-Am and NASCAR Montoya added his name to the winning roster. If that record doesn’t suggest a supreme natural talent, what does?

You’d be forgiven therefore, for drawing comparisons between Montoya and perhaps the most versatile driver of all time, Mario Andretti, himself so often considered among the very greatest of all. The American world champion competed in races and disciplines all over the globe, and won in all of them.Montoya Indy 2000

In 2009, while Montoya was blazing a trial on the NASCAR scene, he was ranked 30th in a list of the top 50 greatest F1 drivers of all time by Times Online. Where, I wonder, considering his truly remarkable successes would Montoya rank on a list of the very best drivers across all disciplines? His latest Indy 500 success only serves to boost him further up that list and victory in this year’s Indy Car title race would surely secure him a position alongside the likes of Andretti.

In an age when versatility in motor racing is rarely exhibited, largely due to drivers being contractual obliged to race for one team in one championship at a time, Montoya has proved himself to be a rare breed. The difference between Formula One cars, stock cars, sports cars and Indy Cars is immeasurable, making his career performances all the more remarkable.

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