In the build up to the 2016 Formula One season we're inducting six grand prix stars into The Cult. Today it's Colombian wildchild Juan Pablo Montoya. You can read past entries here.
Cult Grade: The Danger
The ideal F1 driver does not possesses much in the way of danger. That might sound strange, but a sport filled by corporations looking to promote their brand in international markets will inevitably become quite conservative. Those putting the money in want non-characters on to whom they can project the 'values' of their new urban SUV, or petrol, or £80,000 watch that no normal human can afford.
Juan Pablo Montoya was not safe. An untamed animal in an increasingly tame sport, he stood out in post-millennium F1 as belonging to a bygone age. Montoya would have made more sense in the '80s, getting into fistfights with Nelson Piquet, or hassling Niki Lauda to borrow his plane and then just taking it anyway. He'd have put his not insignificant weight into a car that had just let him down for the 10th time that season. He might even have lost his life competing in sportscar race that his team weren't fully aware he was running.
His F1 career was brief: five-and-a-half seasons, gone at 30 to race in NASCAR, which never really worked out. But in that time he left a considerable mark. People remember Montoya, and not just because he was fast, brave and committed on the circuit. They remember his habit of ruffling feathers and upsetting apple carts, the fact he once got into a fight with a cameraman and yelled "you fucking idiot, you broke my fucking head." Jacques Villeneuve tried to choke him; Michael Schumacher looked like he wanted to do the same, but never had an adequate excuse.
Fans may not remember all of those incidents with fondness – the Villeneuve episode in particular came after Montoya had made a crass comment about the Canadian's involvement in the death of a marshall. But the key fact is that they remember them at all. What will people remember about Nico Rosberg in 20 years' time? Won a few races in the best car, once ran into the back of Lewis Hamilton, gently threw a hat at him after a race. I have a feeling it's going to fade into the mists of time until all you can see is the dull luminous green glow of his race boots. Then again, Nico's is a good face to include alongside an £80,000 watch.
Looking solely at statistic, Montoya achieved considerably less than Rosberg (who I don't want to pick on, he's just the most relevant point of comparison). Yet the Colombian will be remembered for longer and in a far more visceral way. His name is a byword for excitement, bold overtaking moves, and speed. The force of his personality – not always good – shone through.
Ultimately, if F1 continues its drift toward complete corporate compliance – letting the brand values committees at multinational companies shape the character of the sport – no one is going to be watching anyway. Yet there is always hope that into this staid environment will enter another like Montoya: brash and fast, funny and idiotic, brilliant and boneheaded, to add some colour, some excitement – and just a touch of danger.
Point of Entry: Medium
In a world where talent is the sole arbiter of success, Montoya won 20-odd races and at least one world title. That, I think, is the sort of haul his raw ability deserved. But in our reality, his record is pretty unremarkable: seven wins, and a best finish of third in the 2003 world championship. It's the sort of C.V. you expect from a decent number two driver who picked up the occasional victory when his teammate had already sewn up the world championship.
That was not Montoya. For one thing, he could never have been a number two. An equal number one, yes – he didn't have the same 'I need to be the focal point' as a Schumacher, Lauda or Alonso, and that probably hurt him, at least in terms of trophies on the shelf.
What he did have was incredible raw speed, an intense desire to be the best right-bloody-now, and a complete lack of regard for reputations. Montoya came into F1 in 2001 and quickly made it clear that he would be deferential to nobody, least of all the established king of the jungle, Schumacher.
Over four years at Williams he delivered a string of brilliant and memorable drives. His first win at Monza in 2001; Monaco in 2003; and the one that is for some reason most etched into my memory, victory from pole at Hockenheim in 2003, setting the fastest lap and coming home more than a minute clear of second spot.
That was his year. Schumacher had won three titles on the bounce, but it looked like he'd finally be beaten in 2003 – and JPM would be the man to do it. The Hockenheim win made the world believe and following the next round in Hungary he was just one point behind the German in the standings. This seemed like prime Montoya territory: he could smell blood.
It all came apart at the U.S. Grand Prix, where a drive-through penalty for a collision with Schumacher's Ferrari teammate, and some disastrous decisions from the Williams pitwall, ended his bid early. Montoya felt he had been harshly treated for his clash with Rubens Barrichello; he felt the world was against him.
But maybe it was just evidence that Montoya did not back down. He fought there and then, in the moment, and worked out the consequences later. He was not a man afraid of a fight, be it on track or off; his taste for danger had perhaps undone him.
Mixed in with all this was another consequence of being dangerous: poor decisions. For 2005 he switched to McLaren, a move that simply never looked like bearing fruit (Montoya didn't look right in their overalls, didn't fit into the corporate culture). He missed two races that year because of an injury sustained "playing tennis" though most people replace "tennis" with "motocross bike" and "playing" with "riding the fuck out of".
He walked away mid-2006, his spot effectively taken the next year by a young Lewis Hamilton. The Brit is now a three-time world champion. The sport moves fast.
Does he give a shit that he never won the title? Yeah, I'm pretty sure he does, even if he wouldn't say it in those words. He was more than good enough. Still, he won big in Monaco, and at the Indy 500 in both 2000 and 2015, which is legend-grade stuff. A crack at completing the 'Triple Crown' by going for the outright win at Le Mans remains a distinct possibility.
Besides, could he have been as fast as he was in an F1 car without also being the kind of bloke who rides a motocross bike between races with no consideration for the consequences? I don't think so. When danger is your thing, there can be no half measures.
The Moment: Saying hello to Michael, 2001 Brazilian Grand Prix
The best thing Montoya ever did in a Formula One car came during his first season, and the eventual result was a DNF thanks to a half-asleep backmarker. But in one overtake Montoya announced himself to the world.
As I said, he did not give a shit about reputations. In fact, he seemed determined to attack those who possessed the most gravitas, because a lion doesn't assume control of the pride by sitting around telling the king how wonderful his mane looks.
Montoya had Schumacher in his sights from day one. At his third race he struck, passing him with the sort of aggressive move that Michael had built his reputation on; you almost felt the German could have sued for breach of copyright.
Montoya was five seconds clear in the lead when he came up to lap Jos Verstappen. The Dutchman got his braking wrong and ploughed into the rear of the Williams, ending what looked certain to be Montoya's maiden win. But in a way it didn't matter; Montoya had made his intentions clear, and Schumacher knew he had a new rival to contend with.
"When you plan something, it never works. It's simple: get in car, drive car, see what happens." –– Juan Pablo Montoya