After graduating from karting, Montoya moved to Formula Renault, where he competed alongside his participation in other series: a multi-discipline approach that would guide him to a long and varied career across a wide-range of motor-sports.
After much success in south and central America, and then junior formulae in Europe, he was given the opportunity to race in Formula 3000 by the RSM Marko team run by Helmut Marko, current advisor to the Red Bull Formula 1 team.
Three wins took him to third in the championship, but it was enough to earn him a test role with the Williams Formula 1 team, alongside his victorious second year in F3000, giving him his first major title with Super Nova Racing.
Now contracted to Williams, Montoya found himself involved in a driver swap that Williams thought would generate more interest in the team, and that in turn might drum up more interest from sponsors. CART Champion Alessandro Zanardi was signed to drive for Williams for the 1999 Formula 1 season, and Montoya went the other way to join Chip Ganassi in Indycar.
Williams, without a works engine deal, could not provide Zanardi with a car capable of matching his potential and he struggled in Formula 1. Montoya on the other hand revelled in the Reynard chassis and Honda engine at his disposal and he was able to take the Indycar title at his first attempt.
Now box-office after his time in the US, Williams was keen to fast-track Montoya back into their F1 team, but he opted to stay in the US and defend his title, unsuccessfully as it turned out, but Montoya was able to win the Indianapolis 500 at his first attempt: a high point of an otherwise unremarkable campaign.
In 2001, Williams got their wish and Montoya joined them in Formula 1, partnering Ralf Schumacher in Williams’ second year of a works BMW engine deal. The season started promisingly, despite a run of DNFs. The car was evidently fast, the BMW engine was monstrous, but suffered from all-too-frequent unreliability.
At low downforce tracks however, the Williams FW23 was supreme and it allowed Montoya to take his first win in Formula 1 at the Italian Grand Prix at Monza.
2002 was to follow in similar fashion: Montoya often battling with Ferrari’s Michael Schumacher on the track, but ultimately the Williams was no match for the F2002 and Montoya finished the season best of the rest.
The following year, Montoya looked like he had everything at his disposal to take Schumacher’s crown. The car was built around him, and appeared to be the class of the field. His relationship with the team, however, took a turn for the worse after a heated exchange at the French Grand Prix for which he received an official reprimand. It turned out that this was the catalyst for Montoya to sign a deal with McLaren for 2005.
Meanwhile, on-track a string of excellent results put Montoya in prime position for the championship. This was until a controversial ruling by the FIA on the eve of the Italian Grand Prix at Monza that the Michelin tyre used by Williams was illegal, and a new tyre would have to be modelled for the remainder of the season. This allowed Bridgestone-shod Schumacher to win two of the remaining three races and take the title by two points.
A strained relationship between Montoya and the Williams team, due in part to Montoya’s intention to join McLaren at the end of the season, cast a heavy shadow over the 2004 season, and results were disappointing. A radical nose-arrangement dubbed ‘The Walrus’ seemed not to increase aerodynamic performance and it was only when it was replaced by a more conventional one that results would pick up.
And with a win in his final Grand Prix for Williams he left to join his new team.
Two disappointing years with McLaren followed. Montoya’s 2005 was blighted by the same oversteer problems he’d experienced at Williams, which was eventually rectified after much hard work by team and driver, but by then any chance of the championship had gone, and Montoya was asked to play a supporting role to team-mate Raikkonen’s championship ambitions.
2006 began with Montoya finding out that his services would no-longer be required by McLaren beyond 2006 and that his seat would be filled by 2005 World Champion Fernando Alonso. Montoya, perhaps suffering from a lack of motivation, found himself plagued with problems: some of his own making; some unreliability issues that were beyond his control.
Being a free-agent for 2007, Montoya secured himself a deal to drive in the NASCAR championship in the US, and on hearing this, McLaren team boss Ron Dennis announced that Montoya would cease driving for him with immediate effect.
Off Montoya went to NASCAR and there he remained for 9 years, winning multiple 24 Hour of Daytona victories, and amassing seemingly hundreds of thousands of points, but never appearing to win a championship (I’ll be honest, I’m not really sure how it works over there – you get 4000 points and you finish 43rd in the championship. How many points do you get for a win? And how many points does the guy who’s champion end up with?! If only there was a device in my house that could connect to some sort of information network that I could use to check…)
Anyhoo, come 2014, Montoya heads back to IndyCar, racks up a few wins and only narrowly misses out on the 2015 IndyCar title on number of wins scored after tying on points at the top of the table with Champion Scott Dixon.
Despite much success, Montoya could have achieved so much more in his career if his dedication to fitness, his focus and his inter-team relationships could have been maintained.
He is one of two active racing drivers to have won two legs of the motor sport ‘triple crown’ (Monaco GP, Indianapolis 500 & the Le Mans 24), the other being Fernando Alonso. Would he ever go full tilt at a LM24 win? I’d love to see it!