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The day Montoya gave F1 a shock to the system

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The day Montoya gave F1 a shock to the system
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Apr 1, 2020, 2:44 PM

The Brazilian Grand Prix in Interlagos has a rich history of delivering some of Formula 1’s most thrilling spectacles. In 2001, it was a sensational rookie that gave the sport a much-needed shock to the system.

The opening races of the 2001 season foreshadowed what would be an era of dominance for Michael Schumacher and Ferrari. After finally defeating McLaren's Mika Hakkinen in 2000 the German would go on to dominate the sport for another four seasons. 

Schumacher duly took pole in Sao Paulo, then the third race of the season, following two wins out of two in Australia and Malaysia. Main rival Hakkinen took third, splitting the BMW Williams entries of Michael's brother Ralf and newcomer Juan Pablo Montoya. 

Montoya had been recruited from CART team Chip Ganassi Racing after winning the 1999 CART title and the 2000 Indy 500.

A move from IndyCar to F1 is practically unheard of these days, but back then Williams team boss Frank Williams already had a good experience with North American recruits. In 1996 he had brought in Jacques Villeneuve after a similar trajectory in the States, taking the Canadian to the 1997 world championship.

The then 25-year old Montoya had shown early promise despite retiring from the first two races in 2001, but the world had to wait until the third round in Brazil to witness the Colombian's mercurial talent. 

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A new challenger

Montoya moved up from fourth to second at the start, passing team-mate Ralf and Hakkinen, who stalled on the grid. Following a safety car intervention to recover the stricken McLaren, Montoya found himself directly behind Schumacher at the restart.

From a long way back Montoya produced an incredible bit of car control - extremely late on the brakes on the dirty inside line, while avoiding a lock-up - to muscle his way past the three-time world champion. The crowds were stunned, neutral spectators rejoiced. A new challenger had arrived.

It wasn't the just the overtake itself that gave Formula 1 a shock to the system, but more so the manner in which it happened. Montoya showed no fear or reverence for the reigning world champion, all but forcing Schumacher on to the grass on the exit of Turn One.

In a season where many feared Schumacher's red brigade would be unstoppable, a rookie had provided a jolt of electricity and a glimmer of hope.

Montoya would go on to amass a 30-second lead on Schumacher by the halfway mark until he came across the lapped Arrows of Jos Verstappen. The Dutchman dutifully pulled over to let the leader past, but then crashed into the back of the Williams into Turn 4. 

"He braked very early and that was it, I couldn't avoid him anymore," Verstappen said at the time, before receiving a fine for the incident. "I'm really sorry for him because I heard he was leading the race."

While the incident robbed Montoya of a sensational maiden win, a sudden downpour meant the drama was far from over at Interlagos. On a drying track Schumacher went off on new intermediates, allowing Coulthard to close the gap.

With 22 laps to go, Coulthard took command into Turn One, overtaking Schumacher while the unassuming Tarso Marques split the pair in his lapped Minardi. 

After another slip-up by Schumacher, who seemed to struggle on a dry setup, Coulthard took the win by 16 seconds. Sauber's Nick Heidfeld grabbed a shock podium in one of the most memorable dry-wet races in history.

However, it was Montoya's daring challenge on Schumacher that was the talk of the paddock. A mix on reliability problems and driver errors kept the Colombian from scoring his first win until the fifteenth race in Italy. The fact that Montoya took his first of seven wins in front of the tifosi underlined his status as Schumacher's new challenger. 

In two rollercoaster stints for Williams and McLaren, Montoya never quite got there, but his raw speed and temperament gave the corporate environment of Formula 1 a much-needed shock to the system. The 2001 Brazilian Grand Prix was the race that started it all.

Watch all the best images from the 2001 Brazilian Grand Prix

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The 2001 Brazilian Grand Prix in pictures

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Photo by: Motorsport Images

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Photo by: Sergio Sanderson

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Photo by: Steve Etherington / Motorsport Images

The 2001 Brazilian Grand Prix in pictures

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Photo by: Sutton Images

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Photo by: Sergio Sanderson

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Photo by: Steve Etherington / Motorsport Images

The 2001 Brazilian Grand Prix in pictures

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Photo by: Sergio Sanderson

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Photo by: Ferrari Media Center

The 2001 Brazilian Grand Prix in pictures

The 2001 Brazilian Grand Prix in pictures
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Photo by: Motorsport Images

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About this article

Series Formula 1
Author Filip Cleeren