Helio Castroneves: Feeling confident, fast for IndyCar's tricky Toronto race
TORONTO — Greetings from the Great White North! It’s good to be back in this city, which has a way of making you forget where you are. Sometimes when I’m here it doesn’t even feel like I’m in Canada. It feels more as if I’m in a European city, with all of the great shops, restaurants, and hotels they have here. It’s a very cosmopolitan place.
And when the Verizon IndyCar Series comes to town—this Sunday’s visit for a street course race, the Honda Indy Toronto (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN), will mark the 29th time that we’ve crossed the border for competition—this place basically turns into one of the world’s coolest fan festivals. You’d think Canadians would have had their fill of open-wheel racing given that Formula 1 was just here, in Montreal, a week ago. But, no. Not here. Fans in Toronto are very proprietary about their IndyCar racing—like, “This is our thing.” They’re like that about their drivers, too.
Speaking of which, we got a nice surprise at Texas Motor Speedway last week when James Hinchcliffe videoed in—onto the track’s ginormous monitor, Big Hoss TV—to deliver the command for the Firestone 600. It was really great to see him, and we’re glad that he’s recovering well. I don’t know how long it’s going to take him to get back on the grid, but the only advice I would give him is: Don’t worry about what comes next. Just focus on the present and make sure you’re 100 percent healthy. In the meantime, we’ll be here, waiting to kick your butt!
As for the rest of that race, we definitely raised the bar from a competition standpoint. Not only did we break a track record with our pace, an average of 191.940 mph, but the yellow flag flew only once (!)—for a total of 13 laps. In other words, this was my kind of race. You really have to drive the car, and the new aero kit—which I feel was very much vindicated in Texas—allowed me to do just that. I went with a setup that looked a bit off kilter to the eye (just one lonely winglet over my right rear wheel), but in actuality it kept my car really well balanced.
I thought we’d have a bit more speed since we were right in the middle with our configuration. Meanwhile, the rest of the grid was trying everything—high downforce, low downforce. But the leaders—which, for a good stretch of the race, were my Penske teammates Simon Pagenaud and Will Power until Scott Dixon, our Ganassi rival, surged to the front on a mid-race restart and really didn't look back much after that—seemed like they were dealing with lap traffic better.
I thought I had a good chance to catch up and join those guys, but Tony Kanaan, another Ganassi rival and longtime sparring partner of mine, held me back! We spent the first quarter of the race battling for third place and neither of us gave an inch. Sometimes, that’s all there was between me (on the low line) and him (up high). I think one of the reasons he insisted on running side-by-side with me was because I usually wave him past and try to catch him later. But this time around, he could obviously see that I had one less bit on my rear wing, which means less drag—which means, essentially, that my quicker car would be better able to catch the guys in the lead. And he could follow without an issue.
I mean, I was waving at him to get in line but, unfortunately, he didn’t want to do that until I had lost a little bit of my tires. By that time, the guys were too far away. And even then, he’s like, I can pass you! I was like, “You know what? You go ahead.” It’s too early in the race. Nothing’s going to change. We’re going to end up battling down the stretch and, go figure, that’s exactly what wound up happening. Ultimately, I finished one slot behind him, in third—which is where I started.
Still, I’m not as concerned with losing that battle as the bigger one I’ve got going with Dixon, Power and my third Penske teammate, Juan Pablo Montoya—the only three guys ahead of me in the Verizon IndyCar Series standings right now. (Respectively, they finished first, 13th and fourth in Texas.) As much as I would love to be higher up on the charts, I’m encouraged by the fact that no one’s really running away with the year-end championship at the halfway point.
I mean, Juan Pablo and Will’s 1-2 finish at the Indy 500 definitely helped them. If Montoya in particular keeps managing the season the way he is, he’s going to be in really good shape. But I feel like we’re doing just as well. We’ve showed up every week with fast, competitive cars. Some of the close races that we’ve had, especially like the waterlogged double-header in Detroit (in which I finished sixth and 19th), the results were outside of our control.
The Toronto race, however, should come to us—provided we play it just right with the Hitachi Chevrolet. I’ve been fast there for many years—including last year, when I landed on pole for the second half of a weekend doubleheader. The thing with Toronto is sometimes when you’re in front, the yellow has a way of coming out in very weird scenarios and the guys at the back end up trying these wild strategies that pay off for them in a big way. It’s almost as if you’re being penalized for being in front. But if the race proceeds normally—which means the yellows come out in the places they’re supposed to—then it’s O.K. to be up front.
So it’s a very tricky place, in that aspect. But overall, I feel like we’re getting to where we want to be as a team. Sure, you always have some areas where you can improve, some details to fine-tune. But that’s racing. The important thing is we’re moving in the right direction. With luck, we’ll be able to cross another major boundary this weekend—into the win column.
Helio Castroneves is the only man in history to have won the Indy 500 three times and Dancing with the Stars at least once. Check out his website, www.heliocastroneves.com, and follow him on Twitter, @h3lio.