Next up in our countdown of the biggest stories in racing this year is the news that one of IndyCar's longest-serving and beloved competitors, Helio Castroneves, will no longer be a full-time driver in the series.
It was after IndyCar’s season finale in Sonoma that even ardent optimists lost hope that Helio Castroneves would get one more season as a full-time IndyCar driver.
Despite a strong source within Team Penske informing us that the squad showed every sign of continuing with four cars at all races in 2018, the post-race body language of the team’s most successful driver – 30 wins, including three at the Indianapolis 500 – told a different story.
Simon Pagenaud, race winner, and Josef Newgarden, the new champion, were busy celebrating with their crews; meanwhile their vanquished veteran teammates Castroneves and Will Power, who had finished the race fifth and third respectively, were embracing and enjoying a private chat on pitlane.
Helio’s usually bubbly disposition was absent, his smiles were those of resignation and he suddenly looked his age. This was clearly more than just a mutual exchange of commiserations for having missed the title this year.
Despite a few minor ups and downs in their relationship over the years – the sort they laugh about on reflection – Castroneves and Power were thanking each other for their last nine years together at Penske.
At the same venue a year earlier, Juan Pablo Montoya had competed as a full-time Penske IndyCar driver for the final time, and after some serious talks with other teams, had elected to quit the championship trail in order to remain in The Captain’s army for a role that in 2017 would involve the GP of Indy, the Indy 500 and the start of the putative sportscar program with Acura.
It had been assumed by many that once those sportscar plans approached reality, Castroneves would follow the exact same route.
It was logical for Penske and Acura to want a big name steering both ARX-05s, Helio was firmly the wrong side of 40 now, he had served 20 seasons as an IndyCar driver (18 of them with Penske) and this was the perfect time to duck out of IndyCar while still at the top of his game.
Assuredly, no one doubts that Castroneves was as quick in 2017 as he had been when he signed for Roger in 2000.
But that’s precisely why some of us – including Castroneves himself – felt he deserved another full year in IndyCar. No, he had never won the series championship but, car allowing, he had been in the hunt for most of those seasons, including the current one…
The Castroneves-to-sportscars rumors really gathered pace at Iowa in early July – just two weeks after he beat all his teammates to pole at fearsome Road America. He won that race at Iowa, too, breaking a three-year victory drought (that had belied his pace over those three years) and moving to within eight points of the top of the points table.
As he headed to the media center, journalists were told not to ask him about his future beyond 2017… despite the fact that he had just told the world on TV that he intended to win the championship and make it as hard as possible for Penske to shuffle him sideways into sportscars.
At Toronto a week later, a stony-faced Castroneves said he felt his destiny was out of his hands, which implied that win or lose the IndyCar title race, he was going to be an Acura sportscar driver in 2018… and so it transpired.
But no one is surprised that he’s thrown himself into the project with vigor; after taking pole in Penske’s one-off with an Oreca-Gibson at Petit Le Mans in October, his elation was classic Helio.
Meanwhile, IndyCar fans are left to consider a glittering legacy. Castroneves becoming a poster child for the series was of course partly down to being the longest-serving driver in Team Penske history; it’s hard not to become consistently prominent and regularly victorious when you’re highly talented and piloting the best prepared car on the grid.
But by the same token, Helio’s permanently enthusiastic and frequently ebullient public persona – he was barely different in private, incidentally – projected both the Penske brand and the IndyCar Series to people far from the hub of hardcore motorsport fans.
A couple of months on from the public announcement that Castroneves would be a full-time IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship driver in 2018, it’s easier to accept the sentiment that he departed the IndyCar championship trail while still a winner.
After all, some very famous names in racing history made the descent from their peaks far too long and far too public, and Helio’s deep-rooted love of open-wheel racing may eventually have led to him following the same sad path.
But if that famous #3 Penske-Chevrolet wins next year’s Indy 500 or even Indy Grand Prix, it’s only natural that a lot of folks will start speculating whether Castroneves’ enforced departure from full-time IndyCar competition was just a little premature.
Click here to see the list of Top 20 Stories of 2017 so far.