If Helio Castroneves is comfortable heading into this weekend’s Acura Sports Car Challenge at Mid-Ohio – and the Brazilian driver says he is – that should make many of his IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship competitors somewhat uncomfortable.
Last year, Castroneves and his No. 7 Acura Team Penske ARX-05 DPi-class co-driver, Ricky Taylor, partnered to lead a 1-2 sweep for the team in the first IMSA race on the 2.238-mile Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course since 2013. Castroneves also took the Motul Pole Award in a 1-2 Penske sweep of qualifying.
That weekend turned out to be the highlight of the first season for Penske’s Acura program in the WeatherTech Championship and stands as the lone series victory so far for the team. But, for as much history as Team Penske has, both Castroneves and teammate Juan Pablo Montoya – who co-drives the No. 6 Acura DPi with Dane Cameron – were newcomers to the IMSA series in 2018.
That’s why Castroneves is even more comfortable heading back to Mid-Ohio – where he also won back-to-back IndyCar races in 2000 and 2001 – this week.
“Every time you have one year under your belt, it helps a lot,” Castroneves said. “It doesn’t mean we know everything now. We’re still learning. It’s new tires and that changed a little bit of the setup that we had from last year.
“However, it’s the same for everyone. I do feel that knowing the cars, the teams, the competitors – it definitely helps you understand the strategy that you’ve got to play. We’re second in the championship, only two points behind first, and that’s our goal. We’ve got to execute.”
As Castroneves noted, he and Taylor are right in the mix in the WeatherTech Championship DPi standings, trailing the leading No. 31 Whelen Engineering Cadillac DPi squad of Felipe Nasr and Pipo Derani by two points, 92-90, and one point ahead of the third-place No. 5 Mustang Sampling Cadillac duo of Filipe Albuquerque and Joao Barbosa.
Sitting in fourth place, two points behind Castroneves and Taylor, are No. 10 Konica Minolta Cadillac DPi teammates Jordan Taylor and Renger van der Zande.
All three of the Cadillac teams have a victory this season: Jordan Taylor and van der Zande teamed with two-time Formula 1 World Champion Fernando Alonso and Kamui Kobayashi to win the season-opening Rolex 24 At Daytona in January, while Nasr and Derani co-drove with Eric Curran to win the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Presented by Advance Auto Parts in March. Albuquerque and Barbosa won the most recent WeatherTech sportscar race, the BUBBA burger Sports Car Grand Prix at Long Beach on April 13.
But Castroneves and Ricky Taylor have been solid so far, with a third at Daytona and a runnerup finish at Long Beach sandwiching a Sebring fourth.
“The beginning of the season’s been very favorable, very strong,” Castroneves said. “My goal is to take the lead from Mid-Ohio and hopefully never look back.”
He knows that will be easier said than done, though.
“The competition is hard,” Castroneves said. “Cadillac and Mazda — they stepped up their game from last year. I mean, last year Cadillac was really strong, but this year, they seem to be even tougher. But Mazda definitely got in the mix. And Nissan — there’s only one car, but those guys and the Mazdas and Cadillacs, obviously, [they’re all] pushing us to the limit.”
Castroneves has made a career out of pushing to the limit, and he’ll do it again this May. For the second consecutive year, he’ll add to his full-time IMSA commitments by competing in the IndyCar Grand Prix on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course on May 11, followed by the 103rd Indianapolis 500 on May 26 where he’ll be in search of a fourth 500 victory. That would tie him with A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears as the only four-time winners of the prestigious race.
Castroneves was in the IndyCar last week for a day of testing, and was comfortable there, too.
“It helps a lot when you have a team like Team Penske,” he said. “It’s like I never left. My seat’s the same, the position is the same — it makes it so much easier when you jump in.”
He believes that racing both the Acura DPi and the IndyCar make him better in both disciplines.
“I think driving a different car with different tires expands your [understanding] in so many different ways,” Castroneves explained. “I mean, after 20 years driving IndyCar, sometimes you create habits. Obviously, the technology changed over the years, tires changed over the years, power changed over the years; but you’re still in the same window of that scenario.
“So [driving the Acura] you expand your sensibility a little more. I do feel it helps. Every time you’re behind the steering wheel, it does help.”
And he’s obviously looking forward to getting back behind the steering wheel at Mid-Ohio again this weekend.
“That track — for me, it’s very special, Castroneves said. “I won there in IndyCar; I won there [in the Acura] last year. So defending and coming back is awesome.
“Also, Mid-Ohio is the backyard of one of the Acura manufacturing [plants] where they build, actually, the NSX. So, when you start putting all those together, it’s like, ‘Man, this is a big weekend for us.’ We’re looking forward to it very much.”