Helio Castroneves spent much of the 2011 Grand Prix of St. Petersburg explaining himself and he spent this past Sunday’s redeeming himself.
Castroneves robustly began a season of trying to reestablish his position within the Izod IndyCar Series and Team Penske hierarchies, using pit strategy and a pass of Scott Dixon on lap 73 to win his third installment of the IndyCar season opener.
Castroneves performed his customary postvictory fence climb in turn 10—renamed “Dan Wheldon Way” a few weeks ago—then crossed the track to scale another fence and actually touch the new green street sign bearing Wheldon’s name.
“I remember I used to stop in turn one and celebrate,” said Castroneves, who gave Team Penske its fifth win in St. Petersburg. “This time I said I’m going to do something else, in a different corner. I saw turn 10. I don’t know, I didn’t plan [it]. I looked and I saw Dan’s sign. It’s amazing. I said it before, I say it now: You can never question God’s mystery.”
Castroneves’s gesture punctuated a weekend of taut emotional balance in the adopted hometown of Wheldon, the late two-time and defending Indianapolis 500 winner and former series champion. Castroneves, a father of a two-year-old daughter, said he was “very touched” two weeks ago when he was hugged by Wheldon’s 3-year-old son, Sebastian. Wheldon’s younger sister, Holly, waved the green flag to start Sunday’s race and presented the winner’s trophy.
“I did think about my family as well,” Castroneves said. “That’s why there was a little more emotion. That’s why it was good.”
Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon finished second, 5.529 seconds back, followed by Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay.
Castroneves passed Dixon for second place in turn one late in the race on lap 73 of 100 and inherited the lead two laps later when leader J. R. Hildebrand pitted. The Brazilian driver led by as much as seven seconds as he paced through the final five laps.
“Helio was a man on a mission,” Dixon said.
Absolutely. The race was a marked change of emotion and momentum for Castroneves, who sparked a multicar crash on the first lap of the season last March in St. Petersburg. The incident proved to be a harbinger of ill results for Castroneves, who was involved in several on-track incidents last season, inciting derision from his peers. He finished 2011 winless for the first time in a major North American open-wheel series since 1999 and an IndyCar-career worst 11th in points as a full-time driver. All the while, teammate Will Power became the competitive standard for Penske and the series, winning six times and finishing as runner-up in points for the second straight year.
Sunday’s race essentially synchronized for Castroneves on lap 13, when a caution period caused by Katherine Legge’s nonrunning car prompted an early decision whether to attempt the race on two or three stops. The eventual podium finishers stayed out—much to Dixon’s dismay—while notables such as pole winner Power and three-time defending series champion Dario Franchitti pitted. But 13 caution laps in the next 18—because of James Jakes’s crash into a tire barrier and Tony Kanaan’s apparent electrical failure—allowed teams on two-stop strategies to conserve enough fuel to reach the end of the race.
Though the 2011 installment produced a more spectacular melee than unusual, the 1.8-mile street course has become a frequent scene of unusually physical racing. But, Dixon said, drivers “were good to each other today,” though none could explain why.
Chevrolet’s potential dominance already has Power rethinking his championship situation after finishing second to Honda-driving Franchitti the past two seasons. Power, who finished seventh in St. Pete, said he wasn’t concerned about Franchitti’s finishing position (13th) because he now isn’t sure whether Franchitti will be his chief rival.
“I’m not sure we’ll be fighting with him this year,” Power said. “Honestly, I think we’ll be fighting within our own manufacturer. I think that’s how it’s going to be.”
Dixon said, “We have some work to do in some areas,” but he expressed general pleasure with Honda, while Ganassi Racing teammate Franchitti conceded that “we weren’t particularly quick,” and he ran out of fuel on the last lap.
“We weren’t particularly fast anyway, trying to make some things happen with strategy and every time we did, it seemed to put us further behind,” he said. “I had to save fuel the whole last stint to a crazy degree and we still ran out. Tough day.”
Power’s problems belied his confidence in Chevrolet, which occupied four of the top five finishing positions. A self-described “atrocious” and too conservative approach on restarts, he said, amplified an inability to pass.
Franchitti had a laugh with Power after the race, he said, about the Australian’s concerns about passing.
“I got passed by enough people, so I think it depends on how good your car was, how far back you got, and the strategy,” Franchitti commented. “[It was just] one of those days, man. We pick ourselves up and go to Barber [Motorsports Park next week].”
Attrition, as expected, was an issue. The Lotus-powered cars of Legge and Simona De Silvestro experienced engine problems in the first 23 laps, and Kanaan was beset by the latest in a long series of Chevrolet electrical woes on lap 22.
“From lap one, [the car] started to get low voltage a lot,” Kanaan said. “I said it was the battery, but my dash went blank. With these electronics nowadays, you can’t pull it out of gear [and you stall]. So either the alternator or whatever caused it . . . it’s unfortunate, but it’s a new car, new engine.
“I think we have much bigger problems in life than just dropping out of a race. It’s sad, but I want to thank my crew guys and I’m obviously thinking about Dan. That’s what I’m really thinking about.”