The 2014 season starts Sunday at St. Petersburg, Fla., with an especially intriguing storyline: Juan Pablo Montoya’s return to open-wheel cars in the newly named Verizon IndyCar Series.
A former Indianapolis 500 winner and open-wheel champion, the Colombian is back in the form of racing that launched him first into Formula One, then a much-too-long foray into NASCAR.
With victories in Indy cars, Formula One, NASCAR and sports cars, Montoya’s span of accomplishment in different types of race cars rivals that of Mario Andretti and Dan Gurney.
Pretty heady company.
Now that Montoya is done wasting some of the prime years of his career plodding around in NASCAR, we’ll see how fast he can return to form in open wheel.
If it’s anything like his initial go-round, it should make for an exciting season. Montoya came out of nowhere as a rookie in 1999 with Target Chip Ganassi, beating Dario Franchitti for the CART title on the basis of more wins (seven to three).
The last person to win the CART series title as a rookie was Nigel Mansell in 1993. Again, pretty heady company.
The next year he dominated the Indianapolis 500 as Ganassi became the first of the big-name CART teams to return after the split in 1996. Montoya was barely challenged over the last three-fourths of the race, leading 167 laps.
Montoya adds an interesting dynamic to Team Penske, which has been solid by most standards, but underwhelming by Penske’s the last few years. Perhaps his arrival will spur Helio Castroneves to win that record-tying fourth Indianapolis 500, which seemed likely after starting his career two-for-two, and/or Will Power to claim the series title that has eluded him on several occasions.
· Defending Indianapolis 500 champ Tony Kanaan is finally at Target Chip Ganassi, his rumored destination some years ago. Kanaan and Castroneves are the only current drivers who raced against Montoya in 1999. Ganassi now will run Chevrolet engines after several years as the leading Honda team.
· Kanaan replaces Franchitti, who was forced to retire after his frightening crash at Houston late in the season. The Brazilian will pair with reigning series champ Scott Dixon, by far the best all-around driver in IndyCar.
· Former race winners Ryan Briscoe and Charlie Kimball make up the Ganassi satellite teams
· Andretti Autosport swapped being the No. 2 Chevrolet team (behind Penske) to be the No. 1 Honda team. The trio of Ryan Hunter-Reay, James Hinchcliffe and Marco Andretti looked strong at times last season before fading. Carlos Munoz, who finished a surprising second in last year’s 500, replaces E.J. Viso.
· Graham Rahal will try to jump-start his career running for his father and driving for the National Guard. Oriol Servia will be Rahal’s teammate at select events. The loss of the National Guard sponsorship led Panther Racing to shut down its operation and bring a lawsuit against Rahal and the league.
· IndyCar’s oddest pairing – A.J. Foyt and Takuma Sato – is back, hoping to regain their early season form. Rookie Martin Plowman has a ride for Indianapolis … Fan-favorite teams Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing and Ed Carpenter also will expand in May. Fisher adds Alex Tagliani to go with Josef Newgarden while Carpenter will have ex-Panther shoe J.R. Hildebrand, who was released after his early race crash in last year’s 500. Mike Conway will tackle non-ovals for Carpenter’s outfit … Simon Pagenaud looks to build on his first career win with Sam Schmidt’s operation, which adds rookie Mikhail Aleshin, a native of Moscow … Justin Wilson is joined by rookie Carlos Huertas at Dale Coyne … In a pairing that surely will lead to numerous typos over the course of the season, Sebastian Saavedra teams with Sebastien Bourdais at KV … Bryan Herta Autosport tapped rookie Jack Hawksworth for its ride
Photo credit: Bret Kelley/Verizon IndyCar Series