While the development of its new DPi is obviously the primary focus for Acura Team Penske this offseason, winter testing also provides an opportunity for its pair of veteran IndyCar racers to adapt to their new full-time roles with Penske’s IMSA team.
Helio Castroneves and Juan Pablo Montoya have accomplished many great things during their racing career. Castroneves is a three-time Indy 500 champion, 30-time IndyCar race winner and is a previous winner of Petit Le Mans. Montoya owns two Indy 500 winner’s rings, an IndyCar championship, victories in Formula 1 and the NASCAR Cup Series, and three Rolex 24 At Daytona wins.
But the 2018 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship will be a new experience for both, as full-time sports car racers for Acura Team Penske. Castroneves will share one Acura ARX-05 DPi with 2017 WeatherTech Championship Prototype champion Ricky Taylor, while Montoya will co-drive the team’s other car with 2016 champ Dane Cameron.
All four drivers were busy testing their new car at Daytona International Speedway, along with IndyCar regular Graham Rahal, who will share the same Acura DPi with Castroneves and Taylor in the Rolex 24 At Daytona, Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring and Motul Petit Le Mans in 2018. Simon Pagenaud, the 2016 IndyCar champion, will share a car with Montoya and Cameron in those three endurance races.
“Ricky and Dane, they are champions in the series,” Castroneves (pictured above) said. “Actually, they have more experience than me and Juan Pablo as well. We like having them as a reference to learn details. We’re talking about traction control, we’re talking about power steering – I mean, there’s a lot of things that, in IndyCar, we don’t use.
“So now, going through that transition, I’m glad to have those guys to be able to smooth it out. I’m excited. I’ve got the champ in my car, and Juan Pablo also has a champ in his car. It’s fun. We’re the older guys, but at the same time, we’re rookies. There’s nothing wrong with learning, always, and especially with those guys.”
To accelerate their learning curve, Castroneves, Montoya and Pagenaud competed at Petit Le Mans last month in a Gibson V8-powered ORECA LM P2 car. While it wasn’t the same as their new 3.5-liter, twin-turbocharged V6 Acura DPi car, the ORECA serves as the base chassis underneath the breathtaking Acura bodywork.
The car gave the drivers some idea of what to expect for next year, as did the competition they faced on the racetrack. Montoya was particularly colorful in his description of the Petit Le Mans experience.
“We were talking with Simon after the race and with Helio, and the best way we described it was, ‘Go down (Interstate) 95 at 150 miles per hour running away from the police,” said Montoya (pictured above). “That’s kind of the feeling you get here.
“Honestly, you feel like you’re being chased or you’re chasing somebody that stole your life and you need to get it back. You’re driving the wheels out of it and in the meantime, people are getting in the way and you’re bouncing into people. It’s pretty cool.”
With competition like that, being well prepared for the 2018 season, which kicks off with the Rolex 24 At Daytona on Jan. 27-28, is of vital importance. Hence the two days of testing this week at Daytona, which is part of a robust testing plan for the team between now and the season opener.
“I think the reliability of the car has been unbelievable,” Montoya said. “We have no issues. Acura came out with an engine that just runs. It’s great to see and I think it’s very important. Pace, we’ve still got to work on it a little more, but I think it’s still early days for the car.”
And it’s early days for Montoya and Castroneves in their transition from the open-wheel, open-cockpit, single-driver format of IndyCar racing to the closed-cockpit, multiple-driver format of endurance sports car racing. It’s forcing both of them to learn to share.
“I’m not very good at sharing, so right now I’m having a little bit of a problem,” Castroneves laughed. “No, it’s another thing. The transition from IndyCar to sports cars, it takes time. People don’t realize that. I feel like I’m 6-foot-tall, but I know I’m not. (Taylor) is 6-foot-tall, so there’s a difference.
“You’ve got to share, obviously, the driving position, the driving style, the setup – there is so much. At the end of the day, it’s a compromise, just like a marriage. We all know about that. Sometimes we get what we want, and sometimes we’ve got to choose. Ricky has been phenomenal and Dane as well. They’re all trying to fill us in and filter those transitions. I’m looking forward to 2018.”
The 2018 season begins with the mandatory Roar Before The Rolex 24 At Daytona test on Jan. 5-7, 2018 at Daytona International Speedway, three weeks prior to the 56th running of the Rolex 24. The test is open to the public on all three days.