Interview: Is Helio back where he belongs?

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Interview: Is Helio back where he belongs?

Insights & Analysis

Interview: Is Helio back where he belongs?

There’s a promotional video from the start of the season – you can watch it below – marking a passing of the torch at Penske.

In it, Helio Castroneves gently caresses the team’s IndyCar, lingering over the logo of sponsor Hitachi, until his reverie is broken by the arrival of a race-suited Josef Newgarden.

Newgarden prepares to climb in; Castroneves, wearing street clothes, gives him a pat on the shoulder and wanders off into the background. (We’re never told why Newgarden feels the need to don his helmet on in the garage).

The corporate message is straightforward: Hitachi, a regular sponsor on Castroneves’ IndyCar in regular years, is aligned with Newgarden in 2018. The unspoken bit, of course, is that the reason for the switch is that there’s no full-time Castroneves IndyCar for the company to back anymore. But what’s most striking of all is that the sentiment being played up, with the Brazilian veteran cast as reluctantly handing over the keys to Penske’s IndyCar future while remaining part of the team’s fabric, is more or less the truth.

That’s not to say that Castroneves isn’t enjoying his new life as a full-time member of Penske’s Acura DPi program in the IMSA Weather Tech Sports Car Championship. He is, and that enthusiasm has only been stoked further by his having paired with Ricky Taylor to lead a Penske 1-2 and give the Acura ARX-05 its first win at Mid-Ohio last weekend.

At the same time, it’s no secret that this new chapter in his career is not one that he embarked upon by choice. A large part of his heart very much remains in IndyCar. And after an American open-wheel career spanning two decades, it’s strange to think that he’s about to race one for the first time in eight months at the IndyCar GP on Saturday.

“If it’s weird for you, imagine how it is for me,” he says. “It’s an absolute thrill. I’m glad for the opportunity, and hopefully it will be a good weekend. The objective of racing in the Indy GP is to get not only myself, but the entire team – my crew, my group – in synch before the 500. Although, I’ve been doing this for quite a few years, so hopefully some muscle memory kicks in.”

Castroneves tests the 2018 road course aero at Barber. Image by IndyCar

It’s entirely in keeping with the Castroneves story that the GP is effectively a preemptive strike on the 500, because his status as the only active three-time Indy winner means that his name is arguably more intertwined with Speedway folklore than that of any of his 2018 rivals. One difference this time around is that he’ll no longer have to bat away endless questions over whether he’d take a championship over a fourth Indy win. There was never any real doubt in the first place, but now, concern about points have been removed from the equation altogether.

“Even though I never held back because of the points, now I just don’t have to worry about it,” he agrees. “I can put all of my energy into the race, and thinking about what I need to do to make this car better, not only in traffic, but fast when it’s leading the race. Those are the things I’m looking for. I know I’ve got the team, I’ve got the equipment, and I’ve got it in myself, as well. I just have to put all of the puzzle pieces together, and it will be a lot of fun.”

Note that he says “when” the car is leading the race, rather than “if”: Castroneves has been reduced to cameo appearances in an IndyCar, but he’s just as confident about his prospects for the 500 as any other year. For one thing, nobody else has raced on a superspeedway any more recently than he has, and for another, the new aero kit represents a challenge for the entire field. Castroneves tested it in Speedway trim two weeks ago, and liked what he found.

“It’s fast,” he exclaims. “Coming out of the pits… the other one had so much more drag that it was quite different. There is some work to do to adapt – the car was definitely pushing a bit – but everyone is still scratching their heads and developing. I didn’t try much in terms of changing the mechanical setup; I just tried the aero package, Simon [Pagenaud] did something else, Will [Power] did something else again, so hopefully when we go back there we’ll have a good starting point for knowing what works. And that will help us get ourselves prepared.”

Castroneves confers with Pagenaud during testing at IMS. Image by IndyCar

This transition – from IndyCar stalwart to this double life as an IMSA rookie and The Captain’s secret Speedway weapon – has been a two-act play. The first has been learning an entirely new discipline of racing, which is a challenge that Castroneves is aware few drivers are privileged to enjoy this deep into their career.

“That’s the biggest thing,” he says. “It’s a new chapter in my life and my career, and I’m starting to learn all over again, even though the principles are similar. That’s why I keep striving, keep pushing to find the limit. Plus when you have a team like we have, it makes it even more fun. I have a phenomenal teammate in Ricky Taylor, and also great teammates in Juan Pablo [Montoya] and Dane [Cameron] – you saw in the [Mid-Ohio] race; Dane was all over my back, and I’m ‘oh, come on, man!’. It was really fun to be driving and having a challenge. It was really good. Hopefully I’ll be doing it for many, many more years.

“But the challenges… it starts with the seat. I like a particular position because I was in an IndyCar for so many years, and Ricky is a taller guy so physically he has to do specific things so that he can get his knees in there and be able to drive the car. But with that, we have to compromise. I’m not driving the way I’m normally used to; I’ve had to adapt a little bit, but at the same time, I can’t feel pain [from the seating position] because otherwise I won’t be able to perform.

“Then, when you change drivers, there are so many little things – loosening your belts, disconnecting the radio, unbuckling your belts, getting out of the car… there are a lot of scenarios that are new. Plus the car; the set-up of the car – it’s not like you can go out and then at the first pitstop make a change to the front wing. You’ve just got to keep going.

“Even qualifying – if your car’s understeering because of the weather, forget it. And these cars are so sensitive to the weather because of the flat floor that’s so much bigger than what I had in IndyCar. Then there’s all the different technology. So there are so many little things where you’re like, ‘holy ….’

Post-race celebrations at Mid-Ohio. Image by Levitt/LAT

“The good thing [with Mid-Ohio] was that at least I knew the track from IndyCar, but then that was also a negative sometimes, because things you can do with an IndyCar, you can’t always do with this car, so it can be easy to overdrive it. Those are some of the simple challenges, but you basically try to learn quickly. It’s endless. I’m definitely a rookie, and I’m definitely learning a lot.”

The other side to that is that Castroneves has had to adapt to not being in an IndyCar every weekend, and it’s here that you can detect little echoes of truth in the Hitachi video. He was invited to serve as Grand Marshal for this year’s IndyCar curtain-raiser at St Pete, and it’s hard not to wonder whether it was a somewhat disorientating experience: he arrived for the first race weekend of the season, and everything looked and felt familiar – right up to the point where the other three Penske drivers climbed into their cars, and Castroneves was left standing in the garage wearing his team-issue slacks and polo.

“That is something that as time goes by I’ll get used to, but the first race was extremely miserable,” he admits. “I was having a good time during the weekend being there, but then as the cars started going by, you’re like, ‘oh man, this is not fun…’. But then I went to Phoenix, and testing has been fun.

“The good news is that I’m still driving; the bad news is I’m not driving [IndyCars] all the time, but I am driving something really cool with this sports car. I’m in a great team, I want keep going, and if there is an opportunity to drive an IndyCar full-time, that would be great. I’ll be quick.”

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