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Saving Formula 1

Montoya tries to raise the sport's U.S. profile

Posted: Wednesday June 15, 2005 3:57PM; Updated: Wednesday June 15, 2005 3:57PM
Juan Pablo Montoya
Juan Pablo Montoya was running second before his disqualification at the Canadian Grand Prix.
Mark Thompson/Getty Images
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Juan Montoya came to town to save his struggling sport, his understated dress befitting the low profile Formula 1 racing enjoys in the United States. On a hot Monday afternoon in Manhattan, Juan Pablo Montoya greeted a modest gathering of writers sporting a pair of wrinkled beige cargo pants, a navy-blue T-shirt and Billabong-issue buzz cut -- a look more skater grunge than speed racer. "I could walk down the street and no one would know who I am," says the McLaren-Mercedes driver through a nasal Colombian lilt.

Sadly, he's right. Mother Nature hasn't done him any favors, his 5-foot-5, 160-pound frame makes it too easy for him to blend into pedestrian traffic on Park Avenue. Still, in the world of open-wheel racing, few loom larger in stature. Montoya has finished in the top-five in series points three of the past four years, winning a total of four Grand Prix races in that span. Before he started on the F1 circuit, he was one of CART's hottest drivers, and at age 24, became the youngest driver to win the series in 1999. The next year, he took the checkered flag at the Indianapolis 500 on his first try, making him the seventh to do so.

When Montoya parted ways with Williams-BMW (his team of four years) for rival McLaren at the end of last season, many had included the 29-year-old Bogota native among early favorites to unseat perennial series champ Michael Schumacher atop the F1 standings. While Schumacher has had to weather an uncommon spell of adversity in '05 -- currently he's in fifth place after finishing first the past five years -- so too has Montoya. A fractured left shoulder, injured (Montoya asserts) in a game of tennis, sidelined him for two races, while a pair of practice-session crashes forced him to start from the back of the grid in two others.

His best shot at reaching the podium this year came at last week's Canadian Grand Prix. He was on pace to finish second behind McLaren teammate Kimi Raikkonen, but ran a red light on pit road under caution and was disqualified with 18 laps to go. Raikkonen, meanwhile, was able to hold on for his third victory of the season.

The McLaren team claimed responsibility for the tactical error, saying it probably should have brought Montoya in at the same time as Raikkonen (who had come in a lap earlier) instead of forcing Montoya into a virtual drag race with a rolling safety car from a dead stop. When Montoya arrived in New York a day later, he was still seething over a penalty he felt was too harsh. "They've been pretty tough on me," says Montoya, who is ranked 11th in points with 16, 43 behind series-leader Fernando Alonso of Spain. "I haven't even arrived to Indy, but I'll probably get a second penalty by being the first car out into qualifying."