Helio Must Improve In 2010
Although many people found the 2009 season finale dull, if you were a fan of the “red cars” – it was a nail-biter. The top three cars in points; Dario Franchitti, Scott Dixon and Ryan Briscoe, quickly pulled away from the rest of the field and waged their own battle with Franchitti winning the race and the championship. One of the four red cars was not part of the fight the front, that being the one driven by longtime Team Penske driver Helio Castroneves.
In fact, Helio’s results began to taper off since he won the race at Texas, where he benefited from having the first pit stall and won over teammate Ryan Briscoe even though Briscoe had the superior car. He had a semi-respectable seventh-place finish in the following race at Iowa and then it was downhill from there.
Helio’s tax problems have been well documented, by now. At this time last year, it was debatable how much jail-time he would be spending – not to mention how his racing career was hanging in the balance. It simply didn’t look good for the Brazilian who was a favorite to so many. His trial started on March 2 in Miami and lasted for seven weeks. In that time, the already small driver lost thirteen pounds due to the stress that he endured. Will Power had been hired to drive Helio’s car until the legal process played out – one way or another.
As it turned out, Helio was acquitted on a Friday – the opening day of practice for the Grand Prix of Long Beach, the second race of the season. By Saturday morning, he had flown across the country and was in the car practicing. Some journalists (Bob Kravitz) openly questioned if he should be driving that weekend, as he was clearly running on pure adrenaline. Helio managed to pull out a seventh-place finish in that race. With no time to catch his breath, the IndyCar Series headed to Kansas the very next weekend where he finished second.
It appeared that Helio was on a mission to make up for the off-season that he had lost. Even though he had missed the first race, he found himself right in the championship hunt. After a magical Month of May that saw him win the pole and then his third Indianapolis 500, Helio was on a roll. He had his first hiccup at Milwaukee, where he crashed during qualifying and had to race his backup with no practice. He finished eleventh, but made up for it in the next race when he won at Texas.
That’s when the wheels began to come off of Helio’s season. Up to that point, in the five races Helio ran — his average finishing position was 4.4. After the Texas race, Helio’s average finish dropped to 10.6 – with four DNF’s. He was showing signs of inconsistency and frustration.
There are a million different theories as to what happened to cause the sudden drop-off in the final two-thirds of the season. Most agree that the pressure of his legal problems finally surfaced. Through Indianapolis, he was running on adrenaline and energy. After the highly-charged win at Indy, he simply became emotionally drained and didn’t have the energy to focus on the remainder of the season after the Month of May.
We also now know that Helio is soon to be a father. Some speculated as early as May that his girlfriend was expecting, but when asked – he flat-out lied. I can’t say that I blame him, given the circumstances. All of the outside pressures with that bit of news would be enough to take his focus off of his duties.
There was also the Will Power factor. In Helio’s absence, Will Power proved to be more than just an adequate fill-in. He proved himself worthy of full-time staus at Team Penske. He drove in a few races for Penske as a reward for a job well-done and stayed with the team all season, sometimes in just a cheerleading role, until he was seriously injured in practice at Sonoma. No matter how good of a working relationship they had, it could not have been very comforting to see Power sitting behind the wall as Helio kept racking up the DNF’s.
Only the very hard-hearted would not give Helio a pass for the 2009 season. To go thorough what he had to endure from the time the indictments were handed down in October of 2008 until his acquittal in April of 2009, could have crushed the strongest of spirits. Some would say that he far surpassed all expectations by winning two races, one of which was the Indianapolis 500, and finishing fourth in the championship. Many consider that performance almost miraculous.
But those same people will also tell you that Helio had better rest up mentally this offseason. He needs to get the strain of the tax trial behind him, while also dealing with the excitement/anxiety of becoming a father for the first time. Regardless of what is going on in Helio’s personal life, he needs to get his head right before the 2010 season begins. Roger Penske is a fair man, fairer than most people give him credit for. But The Captain won’t put up with the continued lackluster performance that Helio produced in the second half of the 2009 season.
While some of the crashes were clearly the fault of something breaking on the car, many of Helio’s problems in 2009 were self-induced. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that if this streak continues for Helio in 2010, that he may not be a part of Team Penske in 2011. Although he has done it several times before, I get the impression that Roger Penske doesn’t really want to run three cars full-time right now.
Ryan Briscoe certainly proved he is worthy of a long-term career at Team Penske. Will Power proved himself in the short time that he spent in a cockpit at Penske. It’s now Helio that has to prove that HE is worthy. It’s an uncomfortable position. Two years ago, this was unquestionably Helio’s team. He is now only the third best driver on the team. When Al Unser, Jr. was brought into the Penske fold in 1994, Penske expanded to a three-car team that season. The following year, they went back to being a two-car team with Paul Tracy being the odd man out. In the mid-eighties, Al Unser, Sr. found himself on the outside looking in, only to be brought back for the 1987 Indy 500 to replace the injured Danny Ongais.
Helio returns to Team Penske in 2010 for his eleventh straight season with the team – a mark of longevity at team Penske that is eclipsed by only one other driver, that being Rick Mears who drove for fifteen straight seasons. Roger Penske has a history of dropping drivers before they hit the age where they are no longer competitive. He follows the theory that it’s better to cut them loose a year or two too early, than to keep them around a year or two too late. Few drivers leave the Penske fold to go on to success at other teams. Paul Tracy is about the only true exception that comes to mind. Penske realized that the rest of them were past their prime, before the drivers themselves did.
Helio may soon be fitting into this category. He turns thirty-five next May, which is a little long in the tooth for today’s IndyCar driver. Helio continues to battle the label of having never won a championship at any level. He has come close on many occasions, but was never able to close the deal.
I am a big Helio Castroneves fan. I am a fan of many drivers in the Izod IndyCar Series, but Helio is probably my favorite current driver. My hope is that the weight of his legal troubles finally caught up with him and wore him down last season. Helio is a very emotional driver. He runs on his seemingly never-ending supply of energy. Unfortunately, when he became so emotionally drained last year – that energy seemed to dissipate and he had nothing left to give. Near the end of the season, he appeared to simply be going through the motions.
I am pulling for Helio to come out of his current doldrums. The league needs his charm and charisma. It is over five months between the season finale at Homestead and the opener next spring in Brazil. Hopefully, Helio is using this time to re-charge his batteries in order to hit the ground running. If he gets off to a fast start in 2010, this time he needs to sustain it throughout the entire season. Otherwise, we may be witnessing the beginning of the end of the IndyCar driving career of Helio Castroneves.