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“He’s very exciting,” Frank Williams had said of new charge Juan Pablo Montoya ahead of the 2001 season. “Superb car control. Good to watch, a bit like a marching army coming down the pass. But he’s short of Formula One experience, and that matters, because the cars are very complex. When he acquires the experience, Juan will be very, very good.”
As it turns out, it took the confident young Colombian just two races and three laps to show how good he could be…
Appropriately enough, it was in Brazil, not far from his homeland and in front of a legion of traveling fans that Montoya first flexed the same swashbuckling muscles that had taken him to Champ Car and Indy 500 crowns in previous years.
And my how he flexed them.
In one unforgettable moment, immediately after a brief safety-car period at the beginning of the race, Montoya’s so-so first forays in Australia and Malaysia were instantly forgotten as he fearlessly put reigning world champion Michael Schumacher to the sword with an uncompromising, wheel-banging pass into Interlagos’ plunging Senna S.
For many, this was more than a pass for position, more than a pass for the lead - this was a statement of intent from a driver whose reputation for the spectacular had preceded him. Montoya hadn’t just overtaken Schumacher, a three-time world champion in the midst of a six-race winning streak; in elbowing him unceremoniously towards the grass he’d shown the similarly hard-nosed German just what he was made of.
And there was more to come from the feisty Williams newcomer. Marker laid, Montoya then proceeded to romp away from Schumacher, making light of the fact that his BMW-powered machine was carrying more fuel than the Ferrari. He might have won Williams their first race in nearly four years too, had it not been for backmarker Jos Verstappen, who clumsily ploughed into the rear of the unfortunate Colombian’s car on lap 38 as he was being lapped.
"It was going to be one of the best days of my life, but unluckily it became a bad one," said a surprisingly philosophical Montoya afterwards. "Better things will come."
But what of his overtake of Schumacher, was it not as exciting inside the cockpit as it was from the outside?
“He just braked too early and I went for the inside," Montoya explained, playing down a move that had already been replayed ad nauseam around the world. "After I braked I couldn't give him too much room because then in the next [turn] I was going to be screwed."
After coming home second behind McLaren’s David Coulthard, Schumacher too shrugged off the boisterous nature of the pass, saying: "He pushed me wide on the exit, which is pretty normal racing, we touched a bit but no problem with that.”
Very few in the paddock, however, believed that he hadn’t been at least a little rattled by the Colombian’s impudent attack.
And the media weren’t having any of it either - to them, Montoya’s was a pass of great significance, no matter what the protagonists said. ‘The taming of the Schu’ screamed one headline - but if that was a touch too hyperbolic, you could rely on Williams’ no-nonsense technical director Patrick Head to provide a touch of levity.
"People are talking about a new era in Formula One,” he said. “It's nonsense, but we have been joined by a new front-running driver.
“I think Michael's recognised that he's got somebody equally as tough as himself out there…"