Friday, April 21, 2017

The Castroneves Chronicles

If any of you followed me on Twitter, you would know that I am not too fond of Helio Castroneves. Is he good driver? Sure. Is he one of the best to ever race at Indianapolis? Absolutely. But is he an all-time great driver that should be included in the same sentence as other elite drivers? That's an emphatic no. It's an emphatic no because any driver who should even be considered all-time great is a driver that should have won a championship. This should be a 100% given if all but two season were spent with Team Penske, the greatest team in IndyCar history, since 1998.

My arguments against Helio Castroneves are a mix of statistically based and personal beef with him. He's never won a championship, he makes rookie mistakes 20 years after his rookie season, his race craft is average, especially on road courses, and he always seems to qualify better than he races, which is a mark of a guy at a good team who can string a handful of laps together well but can't put it together consistently in the race.

So, I decided to do some digging into Helio Castroneves' past seasons to see where he went wrong so many times, because frankly, as good as his stats are, he should have at least three championships, maybe even more. I list how many points he earned, how many points he was behind the champion, where he finished in the championship, and a description of his season as well as some of the places where he went wrong.


1998 CART FedEx Championship

Points - 36 (-239)
Championship Standing - 17th

Helio Castroneves (then known as Helio Castro-Neves) emerged on the scene in IndyCar with Bettenhausen Racing, owned by Tony Bettenhausen Jr. This small team coupled with a rookie meant the expectations were pretty low for his rookie season. Still, Helio was impressively quick in many races. The highlight of his season was capturing a second place finish at Milwaukee.


Helio Castroneves 1998 (Photo: ChampCar.com)


1999 CART FedEx Championship

Points - 48 (-164)
Championship Standing - 15th

Helio Castroneves once again opened some eyes in the IndyCar world, proving once again that he was incredibly fast and talented enough for a bigger ride. Castroneves switched teams to Hogan Racing, where he captured his first career pole. Along with this, he recorded the fastest lap in five races, one shy of championship winner Juan Pablo Montoya. Despite the speed, Castroneves ran into mechanical troubles at just about every race in the season, throwing away many chances at a great finish. But one thing remained clear, Castroneves could be a championship contender given better equipment.


Helio Castroneves 1999 (Photo: Rich Zimmerman)


2000 CART FedEx Championship

Points - 129 (-39)
Championship Standing - 7th

After some late shuffeling in the offseason, Castroneves walked into a gift from Team Penske to drive the #3 Marlboro Car. For any driver, it's a dream come true. For the young, passionate Brazilian, it was a chance of a lifetime. While Castroneves was strong in his opening season at Team Penske, he was never really a championship threat. A series of mechanical failures and accidents derailed any chance he had. This seat opened up and was given to him in the closing stages of the offseason as Greg Moore, who was set to take the seat, died in the final race of the 1999 season. Helio was chosen to drive along side Gil de Ferran, who would win the 2000 CART Championship for Roger Penske. Still, Helio showed plenty of potential, including a couple of wins, the first of his young career.


Helio Castroneves 2000 (Photo: Geoff Miller)


2001 CART FedEx Championship

Points - 141 (-58)
Championship Standing - 4th

2001 is the year that I believe Helio Castroneves really established himself as a consistent threat in IndyCar. He started off the season well in CART, collecting two wins in the first six races. He also ran in the IRL Series with Roger Penske in a couple of races, but the big one was the Indianapolis 500, where in his first attempt at getting his face on the Borg Warner Trophy, Helio was triumphant. There was no denying Helio's place in history now, even though he was only 27 with many years ahead of him. Back on earth, however, Helio was once again outmatched by teammate Gil de Ferran, who would once again win the championship. Helio only DNFed twice, so it wasn't a matter of doing something wrong, he just wasn't consistent enough.


Helio Castroneves 2001 (Photo: Peter Burke)


2002 Indy Racing League 

Points - 511 (-20)
Championship Standing - 2nd

Roger Penske shocked everyone when he announced he would not be bringing back his iconic Marlboro cars to the CART Series. Instead, they would be moving over to the oval-only Indy Racing League. Helio Castroneves had about as good of a season as you could have. He only finished outside of the top-ten once, and yet he still lost the championship to Sam Hornish Jr. Sam finished outside the top-ten three times, but he won five races to Helio's two, which was one of the deciding factors. Helio would win his second Indianapolis 500, although it was fraught with controversy. But not winning enough races, as well his auspicious performance at Richmond in which he finished 19th where he hit the wall on the eighth lap of the race, doomed him.

Helio Castroneves 2002 (Photo: IndyCar)


2003 IndyCar Series

Points - 484 (-23)
Championship Standing - 3rd

There was nowhere for Helio to hide in 2003. The now two-time Indianapolis 500 champion was no longer facing the CART-less fandom that he faced last year, as heavy hitters Chip Ganassi Racing and Andretti-Green Racing were now full-time in the IRL. Castroneves had another solid season again, but again, he was a) not consistent enough to beat the champion, Scott Dixon b) could not best his teammate Gil de Ferran, who won his first and only Indianapolis 500 and would retire after the final race. While he failed to finish three times (twice because of mechanical issues), his failure to avoid a spinning Roger Yasukawa at Motegi proved to be his only accident on the season.


Helio Castroneves 2003 (Photo: IndyCar)

2004 IndyCar Series

Points - 446 (-172)
Championship Standing - 4th

Once again, nothing on paper said that Helio Castroneves had a bad season: he had no DNF's, his worst finish was 12th (x3), but every other finish was in the top-ten. Unfortunately, Helio finished in the top-five six times, versus Tony Kanaan, the champion, who finished in the top-five in fifteen of the sixteen rounds. While it may have been the case that no one was going to beat Kanaan this year, Castroneves' lack of top-fives is dooming his championship hopes.


Helio Castroneves 2004 (Photo: SpeedSport Magazine)


2005 IndyCar Series

Points - 440 (-188)
Championship Standing - 6th
This was the first rough season for Helio Castroneves since his first year with Penske. While the wins followed again, a series of rough finishes were spread throughout the season. It began early, with a crash at St. Petersburg with lapped traffic in the form of AJ Foyt IV a mere 12 laps into the race. He also crashed near the end of the race at Motegi, tangled with teammate Sam Hornish Jr. at Milwaukee, had an altercation with rookie Tomas Enge at Watkins Glen (on the last lap), and got wrecked by rookies Danica Patrick and Ryan Briscoe at Sonoma. Even if he had finished in these races, he was nowhere close to the pace or form of champion Dan Wheldon, who crushed everyone.


Helio Castroneves 2005 (Photo: IndyCar)


2006 IndyCar Series

Points - 473 (-2)
Championship Standing - 3rd

In the most heartbreaking fashion yet, Helio Castrroneves lost the championship to teammate Sam Hornish Jr. by a mere two points. Equally more frustrating, Castroneves only failed to finish one race. For however critical I am of Castroneves, I will never deny his talents at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. 2006 was one of the rare mishaps for Castroneves at Indy, as he and Buddy Rice crashed. The valuable loss of points proved to be fatal to his championship efforts. Two points is the difference between a one to two place finish at most races. A crash that took away at minimum a top-ten effort crushed Helio and took away his best shot at a championship yet.


Helio Castroneves 2006 (Photo: Honda)
2007 IndyCar Series

Points - 446 (-191)
Championship Standing - 6th

After his closest chance yet at a championship, Helio had his worst season with Team Penske yet because of a middle portion of the season plagued with incidents. With an average field size of 19 cars, Helio racked up a 16, 16, 8, 11, and 18 place finish between Milwaukee and Watkins Glen. A rear wing failure while leading at Milwaukee was out of his hands. A big wreck at Texas collected Castroneves and several others. While leading at Watkins Glen, Castroneves crashed after facing pressure from Scott Dixon. He would get into more trouble later on in the year with a big crash with Vitor Meira (in which Helio went on a humorous tirade back to the pits) and he got into a feud with Tomas Scheckter after a crash in Detroit. Looking back on it, I am surprised Helio wasn't let go by Penske after the season.


Indy 500 Practice
Helio Castroneves 2007 (Photo: Darrell Ingham / Getty Images North America)

2008 IndyCar Series

Points - 629 (-17)
Championship Standing - 2nd

2008 marked the merger of the Champ Car Series and the IndyCar Series, once again leaving one open-wheel championship in America after 12 years apart. It was another heartbreaking 2nd place in the championship for Helio Castroneves in the 2008 season. Castroneves had no DNFs and finished on the podium in 11 of the 17 races. Unfortunately, he only won two races, while champion Scott Dixon won six, making that the ultimate difference in the championship. Still, Helio had a great season, including a thrilling win in the finale at Chicago. Castroneves received a penalty in qualifying for crossing the white line, sending him to last (28th) on the grid (another example of a rookie mistake). He fought his way from the back to beat Dixon at the line. Dixon got the last laugh by winning the title.


Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg
Helio Castroneves in 2008 (Photo: Marc Serota / Getty Images North America)


2009 IndyCar Series

Points - 433 (-183)
Championship Standing - 4th

2009 was the most bizarre season for Helio Castroneves, because many weren't sure if Helio would be on the racetrack at all. During the offseason, Castroneves was indicted on charges of tax fraud by the US Government. Without a plea agreement or verdict, Castroneves was not allowed to race in round one of the season at St. Petersburg (he actually hadn't reported to the team since October of the 2008 calendar year). He was replaced by new teammate Will Power. After St. Petersburg, all charges were dropped on Helio Castroneves and he was reinstated into the team. While valuable points were lost, he was still a threat on the track. He went on to win the 2009 Indianapolis 500, his third of his career. The rest of the season was less than flattering. He was nowhere near the championship fight which ended with Dario Franchitti winning the title. Helio finished 171 points behind teammate Ryan Briscoe.


Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma Qualifying
Helio Castroneves 2009 (Photo: Ezra Shaw / Getty Images North America)


2010 IZOD IndyCar Series

Points - 531 (-71)
Championship Standing - 4th

After 2009, Team Penske officially became Will Power's team. Power quickly established himself as the man to beat, while Castroneves faded to the background. Helio finished in the top-ten in all but two races, and in those two races, Castroneves crashed in both. Contact with fellow Brazilians Mario Moraes and Vitor Meira at Texas and Toronto forced Helio out. He also got massively screwed by race control at Edmonton, denying him of his win. While he was within reach of the championship, he was consistently schooled by Power, especially on road courses. And he was still no match for Chip Ganassi Racing.


Japan 300 Practice and Qualifying
Helio Castroneves 2010 (Photo: Jonathan Ferrey / Getty Images North America)

2011 IZOD IndyCar Series

Points - 312 (-261)
Championship Standing - 11th

2011 was the worst season for Helio Castroneves since joining Team Penske. Helio, who despite the lack of championships is a consistent fixture in the top-ten, had a brutal year. Early on in the season, he was the punchline of a joke by Justin Wilson's team, creating a list of cars Helio wrecked through the first three races (there were a lot). In the first turn of the season, Helio started a crash that saw Marco Andretti end up flipping over. Several others were involved. See the gag below.

Photo: IndyCar
Nothing seemed to go right for Castroneves, who didn't collect a win in the season. And despite the results, Helio only failed to finish once, meaning he was just blatantly average all season. Teammates Will Power and Ryan Briscoe did very well throughout the season, constantly outperforming Helio. Despite this, Helio continued on at Penske.


The Milwaukee Mile
Helio Castroneves 2011 (Photo: Robert Laberge / Getty Images North America)



2012 IZOD IndyCar Series

Points - 431 (-37)
Championship Standing - 4th

2012 was a much better year for Helio Castroneves. The introduction of the new Dallara DW-12 seemed to suit Castroneves, as the car was much more conducive to road course racing. Castroneves showed his muscles by winning the first ever race in the DW-12 era at St. Petersburg. Despite finishing every race and posting a large amount of top-tens, he again fell just short of a championship. The problem once again was failure to accumulate more wins and podiums then his other championship rivals.


Edmonton Indy - Day 1
Helio Castroneves 2012 (Photo: Jonathan Ferrey / Getty Images North America)

2013 IZOD IndyCar Series

Points - 550 (-27)
Championship Standing - 2nd

You would think after thirteen years with Team Penske, a championship would have happened for Helio Castroneves. Despite another good season, Castroneves fell just short once again. He was consistent in a season full of inconsistencies. I sound like a broken record, but he had two major shortcomings, the first of which was the usual inability to convert a couple of top-tens into top-fives or podiums. His only win came at Texas, but his car was deemed illegal after the race. The win was still credited to him. The second shortfall was the doubleheader at Houston, where Castroneves could have locked up the championship against Scott Dixon. Heading into the two-race weekend, Castroneves had a 49 point lead over Dixon. Back-to-back races of mechanical failures, coupled with Dixon finishing first and second in the weekend meant Dixon came out of the weekend with a 25 point lead over Castroneves. That's a 74 point swing in the span of two days. In the finale, Castroneves failed to win and Dixon crossed the line in fifth, giving him the title. Surely next year would be the year for Helio.


Honda Indy Toronto: Day 2
Helio Castroneves 2013 (Photo: Robert Laberge / Getty Images North America)

2014 Verizon IndyCar Series

Points - 609 (-62)
Championship Standing - 2nd

Another solid season for Castroneves at Team Penske, though he once again fell short of winning the championship. The championship this year went to Will Power, another guy who had championships elude him despite competing very strong. Castroneves also had to worry about the infamous Juan Pablo Montoya, who was now at Penske. Helio's biggest undoing in this season? He was too inconsistent, which is normally where he succeeds. He missed the top-ten in eight of the eighteen races, including finishing out the year with five straight sub-top-ten finishes. Quite frankly, the only reason he finished as high as he did was two second place finishes in double points races, creating an inflated point count.


Indianapolis 500 - Practice
Helio Castroneves 2014 (Photo: Michael Hickey / Getty Images North America)

2015 Verizon IndyCar Series

Points - 453 (-103)
Championship Standing - 5th

Helio Castroneves backed up his brutal finish to the 2014 season with another brutal finish to the 2015 season, missing the top-ten in the last four races, including a 15th at Sonoma, a double-points race. The only thing saving him from being last at Team Penske was newby Simon Pagenaud, who struggled in his first year with the team. Helio did not win a race this season for the second time since joining Team Penske.


Indianapolis 500 - Coors Light Carb Day
Helio Castroneves 2015 (Photo: Jamie Squire / Getty Images North America)

2016 Verizon IndyCar Series

Points - 504 (-155)
Championship Standing - 3rd

In the final entry of the Castroneves Chronicles, Castroneves was once again bested by his teammates for the championship. Rented-mule Simon Pagenaud swiftly overcame his depressing first season at Penske by destroying the field all season, leading to a landslide victory in the championship. Pagenaud finished in the top-two in the first five races, and was a couple of engine failures and a wreck at Pocono away from a near-perfect season. Power finished second in the points even after missing the first race of the season, and Montoya finished P8 in the championship after a sluggish season. Castroneves failed to collect any wins for the second straight season.


GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma
Helio Castroneves 2016 (Photo: Lachlan Cunningham / Getty Images North America)

So after all of this, what conclusions can we come to? Is it possible for us to put Castroneves in the same sentence as guys like Rick Mears, Michael Andretti, or AJ Foyt when he never won a championship. Given that he's on the best team in IndyCar, the lack of championship success is staggering. To me, Castroneves is a good driver overall, an elite driver at Indianapolis, and perhaps one of the best drivers at qualifying. However, he is not a great driver because he consistently makes key mistakes that costs him championships.

Please don't label me as a hater, as this is my justification as to why I don't like Helio as driver and why I think he is very overrated. If you have a counter-argument, please fell free to share it with me.

-Matthew Hickey

1 comment:

  1. My favorite Chip Ganassi quote on Helio: "He starts blocking when he picks up his rental car at the airport."

    ReplyDelete