The 2004 racing season marks Helio Castroneves' fifth with Marlboro Team Penske and third as the driver of the team's #3 Indy Racing League IndyCar Series Dallara race car. It's been an excellent adventure for both team and driver, as Castroneves brought Roger Penske his 11th and 12th Indianapolis 500 Mile Race victories - the most of any car owner.
"My goal is to win the championship, but it's extremely competitive in the Indy Racing League. I hope to challenge again," Castroneves explained. "It's not easy." If he had his choice between winning at Indy or taking the title, Helio is greedy.
"The 500 is one of the most prestigious races in the world and you always want to do well there. I hope I don't have to choose between one or the other this year, but if I do, I choose both!" he laughed. "I just have to keep working as hard as I can."
Helio Castroneves has been part of the American racing community since 1996, when he first entered the CART Indy Lights series, placing seventh in his initial campaign with Tasman Motorsports.
Castroneves has been a Marlboro-backed driver since arriving from his native Sao Paulo, Brazil, but initially wore the colors of Hudson ice cream because he was too young to have cigarette backing. Now28, he recalled that it was in May of '96 when he was able to don Marlboro's red and white livery.
Life has been good to Castroneves. His English improved almost as much as his racecraft, and he moved up through the CART ranks to take his place with Gil de Ferran in the most enviable of rides, working in 2000 with Roger Penske and Marlboro Team Penske.
At that time, though, the Penske team was rebuilding. They changed engines from Mercedes-Benz to Honda, tires from Goodyear to Firestone and took on two Brazilian drivers, Castroneves and de Ferran.
When Penske and sponsor Marlboro decided to come to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2001 after a six-year absence, they hit pay dirt with Castroneves, who won the Greatest Spectacle in Racing his first time out, just 1.7 seconds ahead of teammate de Ferran. While the duo completed the CART season, they knew the future lay with the Indy Racing League, which Marlboro Team Penske entered fulltime in 2002.
Castroneves again won at Indy in 2002 and added a fourth place finish in IROC competition to his resume. Consistency became his calling card, as Helio found his way to seven podiums, scored 12 top-five and 14 top-10 results. He also completed 95% of all laps that year.
Helio Castroneves' laconic attitude outside the car betrays his fierce competitiveness when he's contesting for wins and titles. Like four others, he had the opportunity to win the championship in his Dallara/Toyota going into the final race of 2003 but banged wheels with regular nemesis Tony Kanaan. Both lost the opportunity for the title; they retained their friendship off the track.
Is there now pressure on Castroneves to secure the championship that's eluded him since arriving in the USA? "Well, I'm disappointed not to have the championship but it's part of the game. You don't give up; you look back, see the problems and try to fix them. At Chicagoland last year, we had a gearbox problem, so we went to see why we had that difficulty. We looked back to understand." Of the championship, "If it doesn't happen," he shrugged, "it wasn't meant to be."
What isn't meant to be is a fifth season racing alongside de Ferran, who retired after winning the pole and race at Texas last October, the IRL's season finale. This year Helio has a new teammate - another champion - Sam Hornish Jr. This duo is from different cultures, Castroneves realizes, and it will take time to build the relationship.
As competitors, Helio and Sam have talked for two years now. "He knows what he's doing. He's fast. Sam is a little bit quiet, but he's quick," Castroneves remarked. "I have no issues with him so far and I think we will be able to help each other on the track."
The emotional Castroneves will try to pull Hornish from his shell: "If I can't, no one can!"
It's been noted that so-called "super teams" don't always have the success the pairings might merit, but Castroneves thinks he and Hornish Jr. have the right tools at their disposal to change that view. "I think we can help each other to make the car go faster. We have to avoid problems now to put pressure on during the season. It's difficult for me to tell now how things will work out.
"This year there are lots of super teams," Castroneves reminded. "There's us, also Team Target and Andretti Green Racing. All of us are very competitive. In our case, we have to dictate our own pace." He's not certain whether a two-car or four-car team will be more competitive.
"A four-car team [like Andretti Green Racing] might be very good if they know how to manage. You need special people to get along very well and it can be very tough. That's a lot of cars to manage, so we'll see," Helio said. "I just hope we do better than them."
His new teammate took the first win of the year at Homestead-Miami Speedway in 2002 and went on to take the title; Scott Dixon did the same thing last season. "A good start is always important. You have to start well and be consistent. I don't know whether it's better to be the hunter or the "huntee" but you have to show your potential at the beginning of the year," Castroneves said.
Of course this year there are two parts to the season. "Things change after Japan" when the three-liter era of IndyCar Series racing begins at Indianapolis. "The [engine] manufacturers have a lot of work to do" to be prepared for Indy. "We should be about 10mph slower so we have to work on our aero. We start from zero but we have the whole month to make the car go fast."
It's that kind of patience that has been the cornerstone of Helio Castroneves' career in motorsports. Like a snake he just waits until he's got everything together and then he'll bite. This year his competitors should be concerned; this python is ready to go for the jugular.