Despite being scheduled for just two version IndyCar Series races in 2018, Helio Castroneves remains an integral part of the IndyCar paddock. Castroneves served as Grand Marshal for the March 11 season-opener, the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. The 3-time Indianapolis 500 winner would also spend some time in the television broadcast booth with ABC during the day.
Three days after competing in the famed 12 Hours of Sebring with Team Penske’s new sports car team, the popular Brazilian made his return to an IndyCar cockpit. For the first time since the checkered flag flew in Sonoma on September 17, Castroneves was behind the wheel of his familiar No. 3 Dallara-Chevrolet. In preparation for his first Verizon IndyCar Series start of 2018, he took part in Tuesday’s open test at Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama.
Castroneves will first run the May 12 IndyCar Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course. He will then shift his focus to adding a fourth Indianapolis 500 victory to his record at the IMS oval on May 27. Castroneves’ last win in the 500 came in 2009 and his best result at the Indy Grand Prix has been a 2nd place in the 2016 running.
After testing the new 2018 aero kit, Castroneves expressed how excited and thankful he was for the seat time.
“It’s awesome,” said Castroneves. “I’m so thankful to Roger (Penske) for letting me have this test to learn about the new car. The new car is really edgy on entry to the corners, but at the end of day, it’s faster, which makes it fun. Now I’m starting to sort it out and understand the tires but the whole scenario.”
The inaugural winner at Barber Motorsports Park, Castroneves expressed the difficulty of running a test at a track he will not be running an IndyCar at this season.
“It’s hard to come here and know that when the team comes back you won’t be racing,” said Castroneves following the completion of on-track activity. “I accepted the challenge of this new chapter in my life, but it’s great to get familiar with the car before the Indy 500. That’s the big one.”
He also emphasized the differences between the new and previous aero kits, as well as how he had to get himself reacclamated to an IndyCar from a sports car.
“It’s big-time (different),” Castroneves noted. “In some of the corners you feel the rear (of the car) moving around. My first impression was, ‘Whoa, this is going to be tough.’ But as you get comfortable, you start to make changes.
“I forgot how a small change in an Indy car is a big change on the racetrack. In sports cars, the change isn’t so big. Also, the sports car has traction control, which this car doesn’t, so you have to take it easy. There are still a few details that I have to work out, but muscle memory kicks in and we’re getting there.”
The morning session would see all 24 cars participate in a three-hour session at the 2.3-mile permanent road course.
2017 Verizon IndyCar Series Champion and Barber winner Josef Newgarden led a Team Penske 1-2-3 effort with a best time of 1:07.9793. Newgarden would be followed on the time sheets by 2014 champion Will Power and Castroneves. Dale Coyne Racing’s Sebastien Bourdais and Zachary Claman De Melo rounded out the top five.
The afternoon session was cut short due to weather, with Castroneves being the only driver to post a time (1:24.8887).
The abbreviated test day passed with only one significant incident. A.J. Foyt Racing’s Matheus Leist went off track. Leist was not injured in the incident.
“I was just doing a new tire run and then I got a little bit of grass in Turn 1 when I was about to brake and just lost the rear and hit the (tire) barrier, but I’m fine,” Leist said after the session.
With four test days scheduled at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway from Friday to next Thursday, drivers and teams are sure to keep busy. Although the next race is slated for April 7 at ISM Raceway in Arizona, teams will use the next week to begin preparation for May.
Image Courtesy of Chris Jones of INDYCAR Media