If Helio Castroneves comes away with his first IndyCar championship this season, the Brazilian will be able to look back and credit a few crucial changes for filling the one glaring hole in his résumé.
With the points lead coming out of Pocono, the 38-year-old holds a modest margin of 23 markers over reigning champion Ryan Hunter-Reay in the standings, and once again finds himself in familiar territory. In the past, the Team Penske driver has been in the championship hunt at this point in the season, and even led the championship going into the final race of the year on two separate occasions (2003 and 2006), but the first major change that has played out so far in 2013 is the race-by-race consistency displayed by the three-time Indy 500 winner.
You can pin Castroneves' improvement in that area on a few different people. He's settled into a successful and comfortable groove working with Penske's John Erickson, one of the more gregarious veterans in the paddock, who took over calling race strategy on the No. 3 from Penske Racing president Tim Cindric at the midpoint of the 2011 season. When it comes to personalities, Helio and John are a perfect match and it's showing in the relative calm that's blanketed the effort. Consistency has been the most valuable byproduct to come from it this year, with 10 top-10 finishes after 11 races.
After 17 years in Indy car competition, a change in engineers has also reinvigorated Castroneves. He's been challenged by Jonathan Diuguid, who moved over from Ryan Briscoe's car at the end of 2012, as the two have sought new solutions to find speed in the No. 3. They aren't afraid to rely on the team's technical depth, but they aren't averse to trying something different – avoiding going down the same old setup paths that worked in the past.
And yet the biggest change for Castroneves in 2013, however, has come from within the man himself. From the moment teammate Will Power arrived on a part-time basis in 2009, the Brazilian had been pummeled on a consistent basis by the Aussie's unrelenting speed. Helio went from being The Man to The Man Sitting Next To The Man in an instant as Power took off on a winning spree that only began to slow in 2012.
Power's victories, string of pole positions and three straight runner-up finishes in the championship effectively ended Ryan Briscoe's chance of remaining with the team, and also appeared to cement Helio's place as the No. 2 driver. But then something rather interesting happened to crystallize during the off-season.
Just as it looked like Castroneves might ride into the sunset at the end of 2013, the final year remaining on his current contract with the team, the 1997 Firestone Indy Lights championship runner-up elevated his mental game. At a point in his career where most athletes find it all but impossible to change how they approach the sport, the old dog managed to teach himself a new trick. Rather than go peacefully into retirement, Castroneves chose to fight – something he'd done all along, but in a very different manner. The mental anguish from being unable to match Power's pace had taken its toll. Instead of looking for ways not to lose out to his teammate, a conscious change was made to look for ways to win the session, the day or the race without the pressure of Power causing him to drive under duress.
Power's intensity is all but impossible to match, and after a few years of gritting his teeth and trying to apply a similar hard-edged focus to his performances, Helio stepped back and moved forward, bringing the element of lightness he'd lost. This subtle change in outlook as meant he altered his role from an antagonist in Power's story to the protagonist in his own personal narrative. And in another timely bit of recognition, he also made the choice to step out of the somewhat passive role he'd played in the team. Helio had been a driver, a cog in the Penske machine, but with age and experience on his side, he came into 2013 wanting to have more of a voice in the decisions that could affect his on-track performances.
Take the warm and collaborative environment offered by Erickson, add in Diuguid's engineering creativity and top it off with Castroneves' mental resurgence in the twilight of his career, and you have a driver who is in a better place to earn his first championship today than at any time since he joined the CART Indy car series in 1998.
He agrees with this assessment: “You're right, I think it's all of the experience we bring in and a lot of the changes we've made that makes me feel this way. I feel great. I've been able to call some of the shots this year, even discussing more of what I want. Before, it was great because I had Cindric looking after it all in the past, so I was only focused on driving.
"You could ask John Erickson and even Roger [Penske] and they would probably prefer that I just don't talk or ask how I'd improve the car or ask much about the strategy. But these are the things I need to be more a part of. And so far, they haven't told me to go away and be quiet!”
His first full season with Erickson at the helm in 2012 showed great promise after a disastrous 2011 season in which Castroneves had become a menace to others and himself, running into cars – sometimes hitting the same ones more than once! – and flying over others. He seemed to be driving on desperation more than talent as he tried to keep up with Power. That desperation was slowly replaced with the smoothness that has helped to steer Castroneves & Co. in the direction we see today.
“This 2013 season has been quite the fun ride,” he smiles, “a good carry-over from last year. We had a great run in 2012 and kept ourselves up there fighting. John has been a lot of fun. He can be serious, but it all stays relaxed. And this year, it's a different group of guys, too; a different engineer with Jonathan who's doing an excellent job, and different mechanic combinations as well. Penske is also focusing more on two cars instead of three. So there are a lot of little positive things that probably add up to how we are doing right now.
“But it's still not over yet. There are still so many points in the game that it's still very much open at this point. Myself and Ryan [Hunter-Reay] seem to have a little bit of distance from the others, but it's still very unknown what might happen, because one bad result can change things a lot.”
It's far too early to predict how the title showdown will play out, but as long as Castroneves maintains his wide-angle view on the championship, and looks beyond Power as the biggest obstacle to overcome, he should remain one of the favorites to be crowned at Fontana in October.
Adds Cindric, team president: “Two or three times at the end of the season, we've gone in with a chance to win the championship with Helio, and for whatever reason, it hasn't happened. 2011 was very uncharacteristic of him, in my opinion, because he was trying to be Will Power! I hadn't seen that tendency in him since we started together in 2000.
“Just look at it in terms of how he used the brakes. He was trying to use them like Will did, and his timing was off so he was running into the backs of guys and doing all kinds of stuff that wasn't typical of him. If you look back at other years, he wasn't that kind of guy. Now, you don't see those tendencies from him.”
Castroneves and Power have always maintained a friendly relationship and rivalry, but once they took to the track, the No. 1 and No. 2 driver dynamic usually returned. Having broken through that barrier this year, the intra-team hierarchy and dynamic has also changed between the two.
“Will and I pull together now more than ever, actually,” admits Castroneves. “In the past, we just wanted to beat each other, but I think him and I have moved away from this quite a lot now. Now we work closer and stress about the team and what we can improve together. I don't feel we're stressing about each other. Every time we talk, we're there as a team, so I just feel that at this point we are very close together. We've been pushing each other all year, like in the past, but now it's more of a positive thing.”
Cindric shares many people's curiosity about why it took so long for Castroneves to become a serious championship threat, but the mental adjustments described above have surely played a huge role in the steadiness Helio has displayed this year. There have been no outbursts, no major brain fades, no highs and lows, and he's the only IndyCar driver to complete every race lap in 2013. He's a late bloomer in championship terms, but that won't matter if he can deliver the team's first title since 2006.
Says Cindric: “I think the story will be, if Helio can win the championship, why did it happen this year and why didn't it happen those other years when he came down to the last few races with a real good chance of winning the championship and we didn't get it done. More than anybody, I'm hoping this is his year.”
The fresh ingredients behind Castroneves's championship run are known, and with a healthy desire to keep racing for Penske beyond 2013, earning a new contract – one that would likely be his final full-time ride in the series – would be a formality if he can earn the one Indy car honor that has so far eluded him. His former Indy Lights teammate and 2004 IndyCar Series champion Tony Kanaan is in a similar situation as he seeks a new contract with KV Racing. Helio watched TK win his first Indy 500 this year and, with three Baby Borg trophies of his own, would love to emulate his compatriot on the championship front.
“Yeah, getting a new contract can take up part of your mind if you're not careful,” Castroneves acknowledges. “but I have to say that Tony and I, driving the way that we're driving, should not have any problem in continuing racing. So right now, the only thing in my mind – especially now that Tony got the Indy win he always dreamed of – is that now is the time to get my IndyCar championship.”