Monday, October 31, 2016

Musings From the Weekend: Montoya is Moving On by Staying Put

Lewis Hamilton kept his championship hopes alive with a victory at Mexico City but Nico Rosberg could clinch the World Drivers' Championship with a victory in Brazil in two weeks. Max Verstappen, Sebastian Vettel and Daniel Ricciardo all finished third yesterday. NASCAR had scoring issues despite having electric timing and scoring. A Welshman ended 2016 on fire but an Englishman took a championship for the second consecutive year. Marc Márquez fell again. There was a photo finish; André Lotterer was a bridesmaid three times on Sunday and the Asian Le Mans Series season started in Zhuhai. Today is Halloween. Here is a run down of what got me thinking.

Montoya is Moving On by Staying Put
I was watching the world feed of Friday practice for the Mexican Grand Prix. The fifteen minutes prior to the green light turning on and the clock striking two in the afternoon local time was full of shots of fans waving at the camera, drivers walking in the paddock and being stopped for a photo or autograph and other guests at the track. The audio isn't great. It's good if you like the sound of ambiance of a race weekend. The PA announcer letting fans know when the next session begins, the beeping noises from a garage stall and occasionally the cameras pick up a conversation. Most times the conversations are about nothing. At 2:46:33 p.m. ET on Friday, the conversation eased dropped on was truly something.

Juan Pablo Montoya was at the track this weekend doing commentary for the Latin American coverage. He was hanging out in the Williams garage for part of the day and probably meeting old friends and former co-workers. I joked he was there putting feelers out for a return and gauging how interested teams would be in a guy who left Formula One a decade ago. At 2:46:33 p.m. ET, Montoya wasn't at the Williams garage. He was in the Red Bull hospitality area with Christian Horner and Dr. Helmut Marko sitting around a table, Horner to his right and Marko ahead of him. The camera was close enough to catch the conversation. Marko asked, "what are your plans for next year?" Montoya answered, "I am going to stay with Penske. Do Indy only next year." And then the background noise picked up and between the ambiance you could here him mention sports cars and Le Mans but the exact wording of his sentence wasn't clear. Montoya follows by saying, "I wanted to stay in Indy but..." and the camera and audio fades away to a scenic shot of the Mexico City skyline.

Montoya could be yanking our chain. How couldn't he have seen the camera? But he could have underestimated the strength of the microphone and in what he thought was a semi-private sit down with his former boss (Montoya drove for Marko in the 1997 International Formula 3000 Championship) and former competitor (Montoya drove against Horner in International Formula 3000 in 1997 and 1998. Montoya finished second and won the championship those two years. Horner scored one point and zero points in those respective seasons) it appears he has revealed his future plans to the attentive listeners. I have to believe he is telling the truth. Why would he lie to Marko and Horner, especially when his history with the two men dates back nearly 20 years? A journalist, I could see him lying to. The man who gave him his first break? I have to think Montoya wouldn't lie to Marko.

Why would Montoya choose Penske's offer of just the Indianapolis 500 and some sports car program that is still a mystery when he says he wants to stay in IndyCar and was rumored to be a possible driver at Ganassi, Foyt and ECR? First, he knows that race is worth more than the championship. Win the Indianapolis 500 and you get around $2.5 million. Win the IndyCar championship and you get $1 million. It doesn't take a genius to figure out what is the better deal and Montoya knows Penske is always in contention at Indianapolis. Second, the three teams listed above probably wanted/needed Montoya to bring money and at 41 years old he probably doesn't want to open his checkbook or search for sponsors and you can't blame the man. Two Indianapolis 500 victories, an IndyCar championship, seven victories in Formula One, two victories in NASCAR and three 24 Hours of Daytona successes is enough to show that Montoya deserves to be paid up front and rest in his hammock during the offseason, not go boardroom to boardroom begging for dimes. Third, he has a chance to make history in sports cars and the schedule would be a little more relaxed the IndyCar schedule.

If what the microphones picked up turns out to be true, the IndyCar landscape is on the cusp of a significant shift in 2017. Conor Daly was one driver who was also rumored for the seats at Foyt and ECR just like Montoya. Has his life gotten a little bit easier and could the same be said for Spencer Pigot? The fight for the #21 ECR Chevrolet is still a contentious one as Daly, Pigot and JR Hildebrand are all vying for it but regardless of who ends up in the #21 Chevrolet, a driver who has been on the periphery the last few years will get a ride with a team that has challenged for the championship. Daly could be marked as the favorite for the second Foyt seat as Tony Kanaan and Montoya were the other drivers seriously linked with Foyt and both are staying with Ganassi and Penske respectively. Barring a cruel winter, I think Daly is in for a treat come 2017.

What about the fourth Ganassi? It appeared it was either Montoya, retaining Max Chilton or that entry falling off the grid. Montoya is out and unless Ganassi is talking to someone else behind the scenes it appears Chilton is either going to return or that seat will disappear. I think this bodes well for Chilton, who wanted to know sooner rather than later whether Ganassi were going to retain him or not. While Chilton's father owns interest in Carlin and Carlin could be getting in bed with KV, I think the younger Chilton knows success is more likely if he stays with Ganassi for a second season than going to an operation in transition for his sophomore season.

Montoya's second IndyCar spell lasted a year longer than the first and he showed, despite almost a decade and a half after he dazzled us winning the CART title as a rookie and then winning the Indianapolis 500 as rookie, he is truly one of the greatest races of all-time and a throwback to a bygone era when a driver running multiple disciplines was a norm. Now it appears he hopes to continue to climb the stairs of greatest to a level where only Graham Hill breathes: Triple Crown winner. All that is in Montoya's way is 24 hours at Le Mans.

Champions From the Weekend
Jonathan Rea clinched his second consecutive World Superbike championship with a second-place finish in race one from Qatar. He finished third in race two.

Yuji Kunimoto won the Super Formula championship after a victory and sixth-place finish in the season finale at Suzuka.

Johann Zarco clinched the Moto2 title with his victory at Sepang.

Winners From the Weekend
You know about Hamilton, Kunimoto and Zarco but did you know...

Jimmie Johnson won the NASCAR Cup race from Martinsville and will have a shot for his seventh championship at Homestead. Johnny Sauter won the Truck race.

Andrea Dovizioso became the ninth different winner in MotoGP this season by winning the Malaysian Grand Prix. Francesco Bagnaia won in Moto3.

Stoffel Vandoonre won the second half of the Super Formula doubleheader from Suzuka.

Chaz Davies swept the World Superbike races from Qatar, his third consecutive race weekend swept. Kyle Smith won the World Supersport finale by 0.006 seconds over Kenan Sofuoglu.

Sébastien Ogier won Wales Rally GB, his fourth consecutive victory of the season.

The #35 Jackie Chan DC Racing Oreca-Nissan of Gustavo Menezes and Ho-Pin Tung won the Asian Le Mans Series 4 Hours of Fuji. The #1 Jackie Chan DC Racing Ligier-Nissan of David Cheng, Pu Jun Jin and James Winslow won in LMP3. The #38 Spirit of Race Ferrari 488 GT3 of Marco Cioci, Rui Águas and Nasrat Muzayyin won in GT.

Coming Up This Weekend
The FIA World Endurance Championship heads to its penultimate round of the season in Shanghai.
NASCAR returns to Texas for the antepenultimate round for all three series.
Supercars head east to New Zealand for its penultimate round.