IndyCar season review: Helio Castroneves

IndyCar season review: Helio Castroneves

IndyCar

IndyCar season review: Helio Castroneves

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A year of frequently fantastic on-track action ended with 10 different winners from 19 races, a worthy champion, a heart-warming result in the Indy 500 and?yes, some troubling incidents, too ” mainly, but not exclusively, off-track.

The fact that the ?500? winner finished outside the top 10 in the championship compelled us to extend our more in-depth assessment, and 11 seemed such a weird number?so we went for the top 12 finishers in the 2013 IZOD IndyCar Series. In the coming days, Marshall Pruett will do a mop-up of the almost-made-its, which include winners such as Takuma Sato and Mike Conway, as well as drivers who grabbed runner-up places, such as Graham Rahal, James Jakes, Simona de Silvestro and Josef Newgarden. For now though, Robin Miller, David Malsher and Marshall Pruett are counting down the dirty dozen. Today, it’s?

2nd ” HELIO CASTRONEVES
Team Penske Dallara-Chevrolet
Best finish ” 1st, Texas MS
Best qualifying ” 1st, Iowa

Robin Miller writes?The craziest thing about 2013 for Helio Castroneves is that during his 17-year Indy car career, statistically anyway, he’s had much better seasons yet ended up without a chance to win the championship. But, in a year where he was more consistent and measured than fast and aggressive, his title aspirations went down to the final race.

And the three-time Indy 500 winner went down swinging with a spirited effort at Fontana only to wind up a bridesmaid for the third time.

?It’s tough because we led so much of the season but we tried our best and came up a little short,? said the 38-year-old Brazilian after losing a lap at Fontana on a bad pit call and then charging back to take sixth. He lost the title to Scott Dixon by 27 points. But in a year that saw 10 different winners and no domination, Castroneves held the points lead from June through September because he was able to overcome a so-so racecar with solid results.

After giving away St. Petersburg victory and taking second when he over-cooked Turn 1 on a restart, HCN led 25 laps at Barber and came home third. A sixth at Indy, then a fifth and an eighth at Detroit was followed by a victory at Texas. He charged from 17th to second at Milwaukee and at that point it was looking like his year.

Even though Dixon swept the Toronto double-header, Helio finished sixth and second, and another sixth at Mid-Ohio seemed to stabilize things since Dixon wound up one spot behind him. By the time IndyCar got to Houston, all the Team Penske veteran needed was more of the same ?bring it home? pace because he owned a 49-point advantage with only three races remaining.

But his worst qualifying run (22nd) of 2013 was followed by a gearbox failure and he limped home 18th as Dixon was winning. He caught a break when qualifying for the second show was postponed so he started on pole and led 10 laps before the unthinkable ” another mechanical problem ” dropped him to 23rd. And so Helio went from 49 points up to 25 down and, even though he stormed from 12th to first at Fontana a third of the way into the 500-miler, being told to pit when the pits were closed late in the race effectively ended any chance that remained.

In the final tally, Castroneves led precisely as many laps as Dixon (239) for the season but couldn’t overcome the Horrors of Houston.

?I still wouldn’t trade an Indy win for a championship,? he mused afterward, ?but man, we were so close and I’m not getting any younger.?

Marshall Pruett writes?

Scott Dixon’s speech at last month’s IndyCar Championship Celebration reflected how he and many others felt about the 2013 title race. The Kiwi had secured his third Drivers’ championship less than 24 hours earlier, and with an entire room filled with his peers and rivals, Dixon gave thanks to a long list of team members, family and friends before making a classy, raw and heartfelt attempt to console Helio Castroneves who fell 27 points shy of earning his first Indy car crown.

?Helio, man, I feel for you,? said Dixon, acknowledging another runner-up performance for the Brazilian after 17 years of trying and failing to reach the sport’s top step. ?I’ve been in that situation. You’re a true competitor, a hell of a fighter. I’m sorry, man, it’s racing. I don’t know what else to say. You’re gonna make me cry in a minute??

Leave it to Dixie to actually apologize to Castroneves for winning the championship. The sentiment behind the gesture wasn’t lost on the hundreds in attendance. Dixon, like those at the celebration and others who closely follow the sport, were sadly acknowledging that the 38-year-old Brazilian’s most recent flirtation with the series title will likely be his last.

Team Penske’s three-time Indy 500 winner came close to winning the IndyCar title in 2002 and 2008, losing out to Sam Hornish in ’02 by just 20 points and to Dixon in ’08 by only 17 markers. A similar gap to Dixon in ’13 showed how competitive Castroneves remains, but his run to second this year can’t be defined by how close he came to the Target Chip Ganassi Racing driver in the final standings. With no disrespect to Castroneves, his second-place finish had more to do with exceptional consistency and a bizarre, up-and-down year for many of the title favorites, than a true he-went-out-and-put-his-stamp-of-authority-on-the-season performance by the pilot of the No. 3 car.

On most occasions, Helio made the most of off weekends by his rivals, scoring points when they faltered. He had 16 top-10s, 10 of which were top-6s, five of which were podiums, one of which was a win at Texas. HCN finished outside the top-10 just three times ” the best record of any driver this season, and collected points at a steady clip during the first half of the season when it seemed like no one wanted to step up and challenge him.

As the records show, Dixon’s epic second-half charge was too much for Castroneves and Team Penske to slow, and when the Honda-powered Target car pulled onto pit lane at the end of the Fontana race, it was hard to ignore the stylistic differences that led Dixon to earn his third title while Castroneves logged another second-place finish on his résumé. Helio may have lived inside the top-10 in 2013, but was too often nearer the bottom half of it, while the big point hauls ” the kind Dixon went after and took home on a more frequent basis ” were rarely found in Helio’s account when the checkered flag waved.

And that, in the general sense, defines Castroneves’ season. He and his new engineer Jonathan Diuguid formed a strong bond, Penske veteran John Erickson led the program with his usual deft touches from the timing stand and the car was the vision of reliability for the majority of the season. The only thing missing was the extra few tenths of a second that Dixon, Will Power and a few others could produce at most tracks. In a pure dogfight, living with those animals is almost impossible, making Castroneves’ championship result even more impressive.

The likelihood of Dixon and Power stumbling out of the starting blocks in 2014 to aid another Helio title run is slim, and with Juan Pablo Montoya joining the series, Tony Kanaan headed to Ganassi, Sebastien Bourdais moving to KV, Ryan Hunter-Reay and James Hinchcliffe aiming for championships at Andretti Autosport and the rest of the top-10 from 2013 set with bad intentions next year, the challenge Castroneves will face is only going to get harder.

That doesn’t mean he won’t give everything he has, but his competitors made things comparatively easy for him this year. One thing is for sure: if Helio can overpower the field in the twilight of his career and take home the 2014 IndyCar title, don’t expect any apologies from the celebration podium. Instead, there will be many of us who’ll owe him apologies for failing to believe it was possible.

David Malsher writes?

In any other season, Helio Castroneves’ 2013-style performance would have earned him fifth or sixth in the championship standings. Instead, Fate conspired to thrust him into the limelight, made him look convincingly like a championship contender when, in truth, he was pretty much the same old Helio ” very fast in some races, good in several others, and out of the picture on a few occasions.

That’s not to say Castroneves was hugely lucky to finish second in the championship, his best run since 2008; it’s more that most of his principal rivals were pathetically inconsistent for much of the year, be it through car trouble, bad luck, a win-it-or-bin-it attitude?or all three.

Castroneves, by contrast, spent much of the season looking like a boxer who’s trying to win on a points decision rather than going for potential knockout punches? and that’s disappointing. The guy has far more talent than he showed for much of this year. This isn’t an entirely straight comparison because they’re very different tracks, but just look at how, with a points deficit going into the final round and therefore with nothing to lose, Helio looked so bold, uninhibited and error-free at the Fontana finale. Now where the hell was that guy on race day at Sonoma and Baltimore or in qualifying at Mid-Ohio and Houston?

It would be easy to look at the stats sheet and say that the Texas Motor Speedway victory, Castroneves’ fourth at that track, was the only highlight of the year for car No. 3. It was a fantastic win, arguably the most dominant performance by any driver this year in terms of speed advantage over the opposition. But there were other bright days, too. While the runner-up position at St. Petersburg can be perceived as a missed opportunity as Castroneves missed his braking point after a restart and let Hinchcliffe slip through, the same result at Milwaukee was the culmination of an exemplary drive. He had nothing for Ryan Hunter-Reay that day but Helio wrung the most from what Penske had given him and sliced through from near the back of the field. Similarly in the second race at Toronto, there was no way he could beat Scott Dixon, but while others fooled around and crashed behind him, Castroneves drove a clean and smooth race for his best ever result on the streets of the Canadian city.

A somewhat overlooked performance came the day after his disastrous qualifying session at Mid-Ohio, in which he was eliminated in Q1. Again, with the pressure of expectation lifted, Helio just went for it, and climbed from 14th on the grid to finish sixth, ahead of title rival Dixon. That same determination served him well at Iowa, too. Following a decisive victory in the final heat race, he took an engine-change penalty that dropped him 10 places on the grid, but got stuck in and could have finished on the podium had he not suffered a similar component failure to Power’s, restricting him to eighth place. 

Given Helio’s enthusiasm and lovable personality ” he really is very similar to the guy you see hamming it up on TV ” it would have taken a heart of stone not to feel some sympathy for him at Houston, however much we coldly reason that he was due some mechanical misfortune. But, equally, there had been a sense of outrage (among the fair-minded, at least) a month earlier when a lamentable drive to ninth in Baltimore had nonetheless increased his championship lead. Plus, of course, there’s the thought that had he been less timid at other events in the recent past, the effects of that Houston double-trouble would have been less devastating to his title chances.

In terms of raw talent, Castroneves probably does deserve a championship before he quits IndyCar racing, and you’ve got to admire him for still being up there, a title candidate, year after year. But should he never achieve this goal then I, for one, will choose to remember his 2006 campaign (two points off the top of the table), as The One That Got Away. The 2013 edition, it seems to me, he only fought for when it was too late.

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