The fourth driver featured in my latest series.
My next series of features will be looking at each driver who competed in my first ever major international motorsport race, the 2001 Rockingham 500, the first time the American CART Championship had raced in the UK since 1979.
Having been confirmed the previous July, the race was held in front of 38,000 people who witnessed, at the time, the fastest ever laps on a British circuit, with cars hitting speeds of over 215 mph. It was also the first full length oval race in the UK since before the war, when cars roared round Brooklands.
I was seven when I watched the action at a very cold Rockingham, I remember my parents either side of me keeping me warm. However, I also remember the excitement of watching a major motorsport event trackside for the first time, having been to the official opening that May. The speed the cars hit was mind blowing and something I can still recall now.
The race was won by Gil de Ferran who executed a superb move on the last lap to beat Swede Kenny Brack, with fellow Brazilian Cristiano da Matta third.
However, da Matta did not finish third on the road and was awarded the position after compatriot Helio Castroneves was deemed to overtake him under caution ensuring the two switched places after the race.
It ensured Castroneves finished the race fourth, and who I am featuring in this piece.
Helio is one of my all-time favourite drivers, having followed his career since seeing him race in 2001. I have always been envious of his incredible career driving for Roger Penske over such a long period of time at the pinnacle of American motorsport, with teammates such as Gil de Ferran and Sam Hornish Jr as well as current superstars such as Will Power and Josef Newgarden.
Helio started racing karts at a young age, having been born in Sao Paulo on the 10th May 1975, where he quickly moved up the ranks. Born, Helio Alves de Castro Neves, he changed his name to be professionally known as Castroneves early on in his career, with some announcers incorrectly calling his name as Helio Neves.
Helio’s car cdebut came in 1992, when he competed in the Formula Chevrolet Brazil, alongside fellow Brazilians Tony Kanaan and Tarso Marques. Castroneves finished his first season on circuits second, moving up to SudAm F3 in 1993. SudAm F3 ran from 1987 to 2013 racing on circuits across Brazil and Argentina as a category aimed at giving young drivers their first step into single seaters. Again, Castroneves finished the season second, continuing his rise up the ranks for 1994, competing in the 1994 Brazilian F3 season, again finishing second to fellow future CART star Cristiano da Matta.
1994 would prove to be Helio’s final season in Brazil as he moved to England for 1995, joining Paul Stewart Racing at the age of 19, competing in British Formula 3. His teammate was future Jordan driver Ralph Firman, however the grid also included da Matta once more as well as Warren Hughes, Marc Gene and Christian Horner.
The Championship was won by Britain Oliver Gavin as Castroneves ended his rookie year third, just 15 points away from the title, and seven away from his teammate Firman in second.
It would be his only season away from the Americas as he switched to the Indy Lights series, the final step in the ladder before CART and the then Indy Racing League. Helio joined Tasman Motorsports, racing alongside old rival Tony Kanaan, with the duo both faring well against each other. Helio ended the year seventh in a year which included his first victory in the series around the streets of Quebec and a further two podiums. The duo remained together at Tasman Motorsports for 1997 and were the clear paces setters all year, fighting for wins and podiums all season. Helio won the most races that year with three however Kanaan won the championship by four points ahead of his teammate and compatriot.
Their impressive performances as teammates ensured they were both spotted by CART teams, as Helio joined Bettenhausen Racing for his rookie campaign in America’s premier series, while Tony remained with Tasman in their CART team.
Helio fared well in his first season, ending the year sixteenth in the standings, in a year which saw him achieve his first podium finish at Milwaukee.
1998 was Helio’s only season with Bettenhausen Racing as the team reduced its commitment to the series to a part-time entry. It ensured Helio moved to Hogan Racing for 1999, his results improving progressively, ensuring he finished eleventh in the standings up against a very competitive grid including the likes of Al Unser Jr and Juan Pablo Montoya.
Helio added another podium to his CV at the Gateway International Raceway in 1999, his impressive form catching the eye of CART heavyweights Team Penske, for whom he signed for ahead of the 2000 season. Helio was a last-minute replacement alongside Gil de Ferran for Greg Moore, who was sadly lost his life at the final round of the 1999 season.
It was a sad way to join the team however Helio took his chance and was immediately on the pace, as Penske returned to the front after being in the wilderness for a few seasons while they attempted to create their own chassis. Despite Gil winning the 2000 CART championship, it was Helio who won more out of the two Brazilians, winning three times to Gil’s two, however it was Helio’s reliability which let him down.
It was his first of eighteen full-time seasons with Penske as he has remained with the team ever since. 2001 proved to be his and indeed Penske’s final season in the CART championship, as disputes over TV coverage and money ensured more and more teams moved to the rival Indy Race League, now simply known as IndyCar. Helio again won three times in 2001, however his reliability was greatly improved as he finished fourth in the standings only behind, teammate de Ferran, Kenny Brack and Michael Andretti.
It was in 2001 when I first watched Helio race at Rockingham when he finished third on the road, however he was demoted after the race for overtaking Cristiano da Matta under caution. I will never forget the sight of his and Gil’s striking Marlboro liveries, a look they kept until 2006 when smoking sponsorship was banned at the conclusion of the season. It was a special year and indeed event for me and something I will never forget.
2001 was also a special year for Helio as he made his Indy 500 debut with Penske, the year the team returned to Indy as well as drivers such as Michael Andretti, Tony Stewart and double winner Arie Luyendyk. At the time, it was the closest Indy 500 field of all time with the margin from pole to 33rd the smallest it had ever been. It was a breakthrough moment as for the first time since the split that a shift in momentum was beginning to appear.
Helio started eleventh in the middle of the fourth row, with the caution being waved as early as the first corner when pole man Scott Sharp got lose and hit the wall, the eleventh time a caution was called on the first lap.
Helio slowly made his way up the field after a calm start, eventually leading the most laps of the race, 52 as he won in commanding style, winning the Rookie of the Year accolade in the process. With Gil de Ferran second, he led a Penske one-two, a dream return to Indy for the team.
Following their Indy 500 success, Team Penske switched to the Indy Racing League full time for 2002, with drivers de Ferran and Castroneves also moving across, ensuring the duo made their full season debuts in the rival series.
2002 was a breakthrough year for the Indy Racing League, as Penske were joined by other CART heavyweights Chip Ganassi.
Despite de Ferran being the two time reigning CART champion, it was Castroneves who had the more successful first season in Indy Car as he won twice, including a second Indy 500 triumph. Helio finished on the podium a further five times in a season far more consistent than those in CART.
Castroneves only missed out on the championship by 20 points to Sam Hornish Jr, beating de Ferran by 78 points. The duo remained together for one final season on 2003 as de Ferran retired from racing at the conclusion of the season, the Brazilian finishing his career with a win.
2003 was the first season of the rebranded IndyCar Series which saw Helio finish in the top three once again, just five points behind his teammate in the standings. Yet again he won twice and finished on the podium an additional six times. It was another season where Helio may look back on “what might have been” had he had a slightly better reliability record over his teammate and eventual champion Scott Dixon.
Helio narrowly missed out on a third Indy 500 in a row to teammate Gil de Ferran, with Helio making it another Penske one-two, although his three-race record of two victories and a second at Indy is the equal best in the race’s history, only matched by Al Unser between 1970 and 1972.
After such a successful 2003, 2004 was a poor year for Helio in comparison as he and Penske struggled to match his rivals, with Andretti Green Racing and Rahal Letterman Racing dominating the season. This was due to the disparity between Honda and Toyota, with the Toyota teams, such as Penske and Chip Ganassi being outshone by their Japanese rivals.
Despite this, Helio still finished the season fourth, the highest placed Toyota driver, with a single victory and a further three podiums throughout the year. His form ensured he convincingly beat new teammate, then double IndyCar champion, Sam Hornish Jr by 59 points in what would prove to be the final season of IndyCar with an all oval season, as circuits and street courses were introduced for 2005.
Another victory followed in 2005, however Helio dropped down the order relative to 2004 as he finished the season sixth, three places behind Hornish Jr. It would prove to be the final season Penske raced with Toyota engines as they switched to Honda for 2006, an inspired move as both Helio and Hornish Jr shot up the standings, seeing them win races consistently. It was a hugely exciting season which saw Helio along with Hornish Jr, fighting it out with the two Chip Ganassi drivers of Scott Dixon and Dan Wheldon.
The battle was one of the closest in modern IndyCar history, with the top three separated by three points, Hornish Jr and Wheldon on 475 with Helio two points behind in third. Had Helio finished third in the final race of the season rather than fourth he would have been crowned champion however Hornish Jr claimed the final step of the podium and won his third IndyCar title.
2006 was the closest Helio came to winning the title, ensuring he is one of the greatest drivers never to win an IndyCar title. He added another win to his tally in 2007 however he and teammate Hornish Jr could not match those around them as the duo ended the year fifth and sixth in the standings, nearly 200 points behind champion Franchitti, in the all new Dallara chassis.
2007 was also his final season with Hornish Jr as a teammate as he departed the series to join Penske in NASCAR, ensuring Australian Ryan Briscoe took over the #6 car for 2008. Helio shined as obvious team leader, ending an equal career best second in the standings behind Dixon.
Two fourth place finished in the standings followed in 2009 and 2010 with Briscoe and Will Power as teammates, however 2009 will be remembered as the year Helio claimed his third Indy 500, having started from pole, becoming the first non-American to win the race three times.
It was also Roger Penske’s 15th Indy 500 triumph, ensuring he extended his own record as most wins as a team owner.
Following two successful seasons, Helio suffered a lull in 2011 ending the year eleventh in the standings as members of his team changed during 2010 and into 2011. In addition to this, Helio was subject to further investigations for his tax affairs which nearly sent him to jail in 2009, as the US Internal Revenue Service demanded a further $6.4million from Helio, after he already handed them $5million in August 2009.
This surely did not aid his results, leaving him winless in a year for the first time since making his series debut in 2001. It was also the first time, and only to date, where he finished lower than seventh in the overall standings, such is Helio’s consistency throughout his career.
2012 was a fresh start for Helio in the new Dallara DW12 chassis, aimed at making the sport safer and cheaper. The car was named after its test driver, 2005 IndyCar Champion Dan Wheldon, who died from injuries he sustained on lap 11 of the Las Vegas 300, the final race of the 2011 season. Helio started 2012 immediately back on form claiming victory around the streets of St Petersburg, Florida, his first since 2010. Another victory followed at Edmonton City, Canada later in the season seeing Helio end the year fourth once more.
It was the beginning of a period of form for Helio as he again finished second in the championship in 2013 as the highest placed Penske driver, missing out on the title to Dixon for the second time in his career. 2014 was another successful year, again ending the season second, this time behind teammate Will Power who claimed his first IndyCar title. The duo were joined by the returning Juan Pablo Montoya for the 2014 season, ensuring Penske had a super team of three incredible drivers in their cars.
The team remained together for 2015 with Simon Pagenaud joining from Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, with the quartet all having strong seasons, however, like 2011, Helio failed to win for only the second season in his IndyCar career, a feat he would repeat in 2016. Although Helio did not win a race in either year, his consistency shone through during the two years, finishing fifth and third respectively.
Helio remained with Penske for 2017 in what has proved to be the Brazilian’s final full season in IndyCar to date. Helio ended his sixteen-year full time IndyCar career with a single victory at Iowa Speedway, finishing the year fourth once more.
Now away from IndyCar full time, Helio has remained with Penske as part of their IMSA team driving an Acura ARX-05 in the DPi category. IMSA is the American equivalent of the World Endurance Championship with DPi machines similar in performance to LMP2, the two racing against each other in races such as the 24 hours at Daytona.
Following a single meeting at the end of the 2017 in which he contested the classic Petit Le Mans around Road Atlanta, 2018 was Helio’s full season debut, racing alongside American Ricky Taylor, with Graham Rahal joining the duo for three rounds during the year. His first season was a success, continuing his winning ways as he won at Mid-Ohio, followed by a second-place finish in Detroit. Helio finished the season seventh in the standings.
Last year once again saw Helio partner Taylor, the duo being joined by Andretti Autosport’s Alex Rossi for the opening two rounds of the season at Daytona and Sebring and although Helio and Ricky did not win last year, their consistency improved dramatically ensuring the duo ended their final season together to date third in the standings, missing out on the championship by eighteen points to teammates Dane Cameron and Juan Pablo Montoya.
Throughout his time in the IMSA series, Helio has continued to compete in the Indy 500 for Penske, and has continued to be competitive. 2018 saw him set some of the fastest times of the weekend, a feat he repeated last year, although his speed sadly did not materialise into a strong result either year.
Despite this I still support him each year, with his livery being produced by Sean Bull in recent years, a designer I also admire hugely. It has been fantastic to be able to watch Helio’s career throughout the years, although IndyCar went through a difficult phase where its popularity dwindled in the UK throughout the late noughties.
He is a driver I have, and always will, look out for, I have always said that I would love to see him come over to the UK for the Goodwood Festival of Speed as a guest. One can only dream!
2020 will be Helio’s third full year driving for Penske in IMSA as well as his twentieth Indy 500, ensuring it marks twenty years since he made his debut for the famous team, an amazing achievement for an amazing driver.
Pictures: www.dailynews.com, www.heliocastroneves.com