The chatter in the IndyCar paddock is that it is a done deal.
Team Penske will scale back to 3 cars in 2018 running Newgarden, Power and Pagenaud. Which means by default that Helio Castroneves’ illustrious 20 year career in IndyCar ends this season.
The Captain – the shrewdest of businessmen – is not content to lose a driver of Castroneves caliber. The smart money is therefore on the Brazilian heading up Penske’s new DPi IMSA programme for Honda alongside fellow Penske ‘old timer’ Juan Pablo Montoya.
Both drivers still have plenty to offer and will make for a potent combination in 2018 as Penske returns to IMSA for the first time since 2009.
What about Helio?
Castroneves ‘departure’ is starting to feel like one of those worst kept secrets motor sport is so fond of. In the process of teasing out the meaning behind various public statements from Penske and Castroneves in recent months, one question however appears to remain unasked: is this what Helio wants?
No signs Helio is about to slow down
The eternally youthful Castroneves shows no signs his appetite for IndyCar is diminishing. Up until Josef Newgarden’s recent inspired form, Castroneves was in the box seat for that illusive maiden IndyCar championship.
The 42 year old similarly remains quick and consistent at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in pursuit of an equally illusive 4th Indy 500 victory.
There has been nothing this season to suggest the Brazilian has lost the drive and desire to chase those two prizes. Whilst Montoya’s departure from full-time IndyCar racing at the end of 2016 came as a surprise to many, insiders close to Team Penske suggest otherwise.
There had, it would seem, been several conversations behind closed doors about JPM wanting to spend more time with his family and in particular guide the burgeoning karting career of his son, Sebastien.
In contrast there has been nothing – and I mean zip – coming from the IndyCar paddock to suggest the 3-time Indy 500 winner is done with open wheel racing.
The illusive 4th Indy 500 win & diminishing chances
Whilst an IndyCar championship is definitely on Castroneves’ racing bucket list, a fourth Indy 500 win undoubtedly remains his number one priority. Sticking within the Team Penske family presumably will afford him the chance to run the 500 as a one off in the coming years. In much the same fashion as Montoya did earlier this year.
Montoya’s experience however illustrated that the chances of victory, inevitably, diminish when a driver goes from full time running to Indianapolis only. The 2-time winner was quick but never really in contention for a third win.
Will that be good enough for Castroneves? Only the man himself knows the answer but again it is hard to recall any interviews or comments that suggest the Penske driver would be satisfied with a cameo appearance at the Brickyard from 2018 onwards.
IMSA success is likely for Castroneves, Montoya
Undoubtedly the Penske-run Honda DPi programme will be successful. Race wins, podiums and championships are fairly realistic expectations for Castroneves, Montoya and whoever joins them. For any racing driver that would be an attractive offer but in the case of Castroneves it is difficult to see it trumping a couple more shots at IndyCar glory.
An interesting, interconnected issue is the question of what IndyCar’s perspective on all this is.
Losing a key asset at a critical time
The series is on a steady upward trajectory. Release of the new universal aero kit has fans and media excited. Attendances are broadly heading upwards and a new TV dealing is in the pipeline. But there is still plenty of work to be done to undo the damage of the split. The timing of the ‘Helio to IMSA but we aren’t announcing it yet’ news is pretty bad for IndyCar.
No disrespect to any other driver but Castroneves is the series’ most marketable asset. Helio is the best known of all the active drivers and a firm fan favourite. He is a sound commercial option too.
The sponsors love Helio
For example, in 2017 many leading drivers have been running with minimal sponsorship on their cars. At the same time Castroneves has enjoyed backing from major brands including Hitachi, AAA and Shell. Going in to 2018 IndyCar will be trying to tie down a new TV deal, potentially secure a new series sponsor and continue to build its fanbase.
Without Castroneves that will be a harder task. Which therefore leave you to consider whether the series might take a leaf out of Bernie Ecclestone’s book.
Would IndyCar intervene?
The former commercial rights ‘ringmaster’ of F1 was widely rumored to influence decisions made by teams over driver selection and more. Never in an explicit way of course but Bernie was talented at putting a well-placed word in the ear of the right journalist, agent or team boss.
It is hard to imagine IndyCar ever intervening directly. The relationship between the series and teams is much less dictatorial than F1 was during Bernie’s reign. But that is not to say that the series might not have a quiet word with one of its prized assets.
In 2-4 years time drivers like Newgarden, Rossi and Hinchcliffe will replace the likes of Castroneves, Dixon, Montoya and Hunter-Reay. But until then, IndyCar needs all of its big name star drivers along for the ride. And Castroneves is arguably the biggest.
Where could Helio go if he wants to stay in IndyCar?
We may need to wait until Helio writes his autobiography before we know how he really felt about leaving IndyCar. It might not even happen just yet.
Consider the fact Michael Andretti is on the verge of switching to Chevrolet for 2018. That will push Sato and Rossi out the door given their close Honda ties, opening up at least 1 if not 2 seats. At the same time Andretti Autosport could sure use a driver who can attract big brand sponsors to their increasingly sparsely liveried cars.
Watch this space.