Is Helio Castroneves, the man with 30 IndyCar wins and 50 poles, just five races away from the end of his fulltime IndyCar career? David Malsher says this shouldn't be the veteran's swan song.
If you’re a racing fan, you can hardly have avoided reading the rampant speculation surrounding Helio Castroneves’ future – in particular the possibility of him being switched from Team Penske’s IndyCar team to its new/revived sportscar squad next year.
Here’s what we think we know… albeit with the caveat of knowing also that Roger Penske has the capacity to surprise. Is Penske cutting down to just three fulltime Indy cars next year? Almost certainly. Is Castroneves the current driver most likely to be left without a ride? Absolutely. Is he in the running for a place in the Penske Acura sportscar lineup? Definitely.
As a career alternative, that’s a great one. It’s an opportunity to help develop a brand new prototype in one of the last remaining motorsport categories to allow free-thinking designers and engineers to push their limits, and then have it run by one of the three greatest racing teams of all time.
But the man who kicked everyone’s butt at Iowa Speedway in the 11th round of the IndyCar season, and who currently sits just three points from the lead in the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series points standings with five rounds to go, clearly has much more to give in open-wheel racing. And no, I’m not just talking about the Indy 500 one-offs that he’ll have been offered by Roger Penske.
Castroneves’ detractors (yes, he has some) will point out that despite being triumphant three times at Indy (they’ll say only two) he has never won an Indy car championship in almost 20 years of trying. And that’s despite 17-going-on-18 of those seasons being spent at Penske, so what will make 2017 any different?
These detractors were particularly loud and numerous in the three year gap between his 29th and 30th career victories. It became very fashionable to knock the old man, ignoring the fact that from 2014 through ’16, he finished second, fifth and third in the title race. But they ignored the wins that got away through no fault of his own, and also how immensely difficult it is to continually knock on the door of victory lane on all types of track in IndyCar.
The days of Penske or Ganassi drivers showing up at any track almost certain of qualifying and finishing in the top five are long gone. On the occasions when Penske do still look superior, it’s because they run a slick operation full of smart engineers and because they run four of the best drivers in the series.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure a Carlos Munoz or a Mikhail Aleshin would qualify further up the grid than they do currently were they driving a Penske-Chevrolet. But I’m equally sure that if Castroneves was not firing on all cylinders and not extracting the best from his car, he wouldn’t be making the Firestone Fast Six, maybe not even the Top 12. Nor would he have scored three poles and a win this year.
Is he, year in/year out, as ultra-fast as Will Power, as ultra-canny as Simon Pagenaud or an ultimate all-’rounder like Scott Dixon? In truth, no. But Helio has the ability to beat all of them on occasion… in fact, on enough occasions to make him a title contender every year. Power wasn’t just making a team-friendly, throwaway or patronizing remark when he suggested in 2014 (and several times since) that the veteran Brazilian “is getting faster with age.” He meant it, and the stats bore him out. In that winless period between Detroit 2014 and Iowa 2017, Castroneves amassed 12 pole positions.
Of course, Will didn’t mean that his veteran teammate had somehow increased his talent level. What’s happened is that Helio has improved his understanding of the car and tires and is not just driving on pure instinct. This in itself is making him more composed and allowing him to channel his talent in a constructive manner.
Rick Mears, whose victory tally Castroneves surpassed at Iowa, told me: “Helio has taken his game to a whole new level, all season, and it’s showing. He’s had three poles this year, and I’m impressed he still has that desire to put it all on the line like that.
“There was one race weekend this year – might have been Detroit – where he literally did not put a wheel wrong all through the three days. Not even a single locked tire. That, to me, shows his huge focus this year, his concentration on eliminating mistakes.
“I think Helio’s trying to prove he’s not really 42, and some of the cracks about being an oldtimer have kind of motivated him into proving he’s not ready to go off and do something else.
“When I started feeling I didn’t have the motivation, that’s when I told Roger [Penske] I was gonna quit at the end of the season. To stay competitive and stay on the curve I was on, I was going to need to recommit, and that’s what I couldn’t do. But Helio has done that; he’s applying himself and learning things and going to a new level where he’s finally putting all the pieces together.”
Mears went on: “I think he’s going to fight for the championship, absolutely. He’s learning so much and proving he’s able to apply it on track, and he’s also keeping calm and building up his points score by being consistent right across all types of track.
“There’s no really obvious flaws, and if there were, he’d be busy correcting them.”
That being the case, it would be very hard to watch this ace driver leave IndyCar. This is not like Jackie Stewart or Bobby Unser, Jody Scheckter or Gil de Ferran, all aces who chose to leave open-wheel racing while still in their prime. This is a driver being ushered out the door of the IndyCar squad and into the adjoining IMSA squad – and however much people may envy him this opportunity, it is simply not his first love.
Anyone questioning whether Castroneves might be leaving under duress was put right in Toronto last weekend. I didn’t want to make this proud man squirm by putting him on the spot in the press conference, but many of us writers were still somewhat peeved that we’d been ‘forbidden’ from even touching on the subject at Iowa. That had seemed heavy-handed on the part of… Helio himself? Team Penske? IndyCar? Depends who you believe.
So in Canada, I asked him if we could now raise the subject. “Sure,” he responded. “What do you want to know? You shouldn't ask me. There are people with more power than me actually to make things happen.”
In between some of his typically fractured sentences, the meaning was not lost, the sentiment was clear. He concluded: “It's not in my hands, or results… But at this point, I feel I'm going to do everything I can – if we're in that position – to make it harder for everyone, if there is a decision in the end, to change or not.”
Then… “To be continued!”
Actually, I’m not convinced that Castroneves winning the championship would make much difference to Roger Penske’s desire to put him in an Acura DPi in 2018. With Helio finally earning an IndyCar title and still able to continue his specialty – strutting his stuff at the Indianapolis 500 for the foreseeable future – RP might see that as the perfect point for Helio to end his fulltime participation in U.S. open-wheel.
I suspect the one thing that would persuade The Captain to keep his 18-year driver in the IndyCar Series would be if Hitachi or one of the other regular title sponsors of the #3 Penske-Chevy stepped up its investment to be a full-time title sponsor – but did so on condition that it had the sponsor-friendly spectator-friendly Helio in the car.
And quite frankly, that kind of request would be completely understandable. The overtly enthusiastic showman has long been part of the attraction toward Castroneves, but the fact that he’s matching it with endeavor in the engineering truck and consistency in the cockpit can only heighten his appeal. He’s probably driving better now than at any other time in his career, so one can understand the bemusement he must feel at being pressured into swapping an Indy car for a sportscar.
So what’s to prevent Helio leaving Penske altogether? I asked one of Helio’s confidantes if he thought that was a possibility and the response was, “I’m not sure his conscience would allow him to do that. Roger’s shown a lot of loyalty to him over the years.”
I pondered that, and recalled the disastrous 2011 season, which started with Helio regularly hitting cars as he wrestled with brake modulation during his switch to left-foot braking. Power ended the year with six wins, fighting Dario Franchitti for the championship; Castroneves was 11th, with just a couple of podium finishes to his name. Had The Captain forced Helio walk the plank at the end of that season, yeah, I’d have understood. Heck, even Helio would have understood. That they didn’t split indeed showed loyalty on Penske’s part… but I’d say it better demonstrated that he is a racing man who understands the saying that ‘form is temporary, class is permanent.’
Some might also point out that Penske stuck by Castroneves through his tax evasion trial, but on the simple basis of “innocent until proven guilty”, surely no honorable boss would have failed to do so. That does raise an interesting point, though: is Castroneves is still paying for the lawyers who helped get him acquitted? Is he still laboring under the burden of back taxes? It’s not our place to ask, any more than it’s our right to know if he could extract himself from the partnership he has with Roger in the New Holland Auto Group car dealership.
What I would say, however, is that if Castroneves has the financial wherewithal to do it, he should slash his salary demands for a year or two and start knocking on doors of rival teams. On his current form, I don’t think there’s a single team-owner in the paddock who wouldn’t be interested, and several who’d sign him up in a heartbeat. Sure, it would be strange to see him driving for anyone but Team Penske, but then, this is a weird situation. It’s easy to understand why Castroneves is baffled and feels somewhat cornered.
Yes, there will always be emotional ties between Castroneves and Roger Penske and team president Tim Cindric, and yes, they’ve supported him in difficult times. But let’s be clear, the team has also benefited from this extraordinarily long alliance. Helio’s public charisma and brio has shone a very positive spotlight on the Penske brand (and the series), in an era when U.S. open-wheel has struggled for attention. And by most metrics, you’d have to say he has delivered: all 30 of Helio’s wins – including, let’s not forget, three Indy 500s – and 49 of his 50 poles have been delivered to Penske, making him the team’s most successful driver.
I’m not sure anyone involved in this immensely successful union wants to see it dissolve. But speaking purely as an enthusiast, I’d hate to see Castroneves, against his will, quit the fulltime IndyCar scene while delivering his best. Anyone with his stats has surely earned the right to control his own destiny. Hasn’t he?