Helio Castroneves eagerly gearing up for IndyCar season debut

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Helio Castroneves monitored the first four IndyCar races of the season from afar.

He learned to cope with the emotions of competing outside the series, being away from longtime friends and surrounded by his biggest fans. The itch to be out there, competing, never waned, though.

On Friday, the beloved Brazilian will get the best belated birthday gift he could: Returning to the track as he prepares to make his season debut Saturday in the IndyCar Grand Prix.

“It’s really hard when you drove for 20 years and all of a sudden you’re doing something else,” Castroneves said Thursday as he celebrated his 43rd birthday. “It doesn’t connect. But I’m super happy have the opportunity I do have.”

Sure, he knew this day would come.

But the wait has been the hardest part for one of the world’s steadiest open-wheel drivers.

After making 344 starts, winning 30 races, collecting 141 top-five and 226 top-10 finishes and placing fifth or higher in IndyCar points 13 times in 16 full-time seasons, Castroneves’ career turned in a new direction.

He switched to Roger Penske’s new sports car program after last season and now anchors one of the team’s Acura entries along with defending series champion Ricky Taylor and is happily running full-time on the IMSA circuit.

“It’s great to be back, awesome,” Castroneves said during last week’s testing. “It’s like you’re playing with your old toy that (you) miss so bad.”

Castroneves’ comeback couldn’t begin at a better venue, either.

Only three drivers – A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears – have more Indianapolis 500 wins than Castroneves, who also has three runner-up finishes and three additional top-fives in 17 starts on the 2.5-mile oval.

For now, though, Castroneves must remain focused on tinkering with this year’s new aero kit on the track’s 2.439-mile, 14-turn road course. Practice begins Friday morning with qualifying set for later in the day. There will be another practice round Saturday morning prior to the race.

Weather conditions could create another wrinkle. Saturday’s forecast calls for a high temperature of 93 degrees with a 20 percent chance of rain.

“It should be a bit different than the last two years. It should be a bit warmer, as well, so that should change how the race is going to go,” defending winner and Penske teammate Simon Pagenaud said. “I think the drafting is pretty good here. It’s been strong on the straightaway, so you can certainly get sucked up really well, you can follow closer and not get as affected as before. So there’s more opportunities (to pass) for sure.”

Fortunately for Castroneves, he’s in the best situation of any part-time driver.

He’s been with Penske’s team 19 seasons, has a crew he’s worked with previously, three teammates he worked with last year and just happens to be driving for a team that has won three of the last four series championships and each of the four other Grand Prix’s at Indy.

The question, of course, is how long will it take Castroneves to get up to speed?

Penske’s ballyhooed return to IMSA started slowly. Then last weekend, Castroneves and Taylor drove to their first victory in a race at Mid-Ohio.

Castroneves also won the pole – nipping fellow Penske driver Dane Cameron for a 1-2 Penske start to the race – and he and Taylor combined to lead a race-high 87 laps. The other 38 laps were led by Penske teammates Cameron and Juan Pablo Montoya, who finished second.

It was Team Penske’s first IMSA win in nearly 10 years, and Castroneves’ first win on the circuit since taking the LMP2 class win in the Motul Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta on Oct. 4, 2008.

That gives Castroneves momentum heading into the weekend – and renewed hope of becoming the first top-series level driver to win on both of Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s courses.

“I do think about that and I have been thinking about that since this race started,” Castroneves said. “I’m ready to go here.”

Toyota No. 8 car wins the 24 Hours of Le Mans for third consecutive year

24 Hours of Le Mans

LE MANS, France — Toyota Gazoo’s No. 8 car comfortably won the 24 Hours of Le Mans by five laps Sunday to secure a third straight victory in the prestigious endurance race.

It was also a third consecutive win for Swiss driver Sebastien Buemi and Japan’s Kazuki Nakajima driving. Brendon Hartley was the other driver, having replaced two-time Formula One champion Fernando Alonso.

Buemi and Hartley sat on the side of the car as Nakajima drove toward the podium. Hartley won for a second time after tasting success with the Porsche LMP Team in 2017 before an unhappy season in Formula One.

The Swiss team’s Rebellion No. 1 featured American driver Gustavo Menezes and Brazilian Bruno Senna – the nephew of late F1 great Ayrton Senna.

It finished one lap ahead of Toyota Gazoo’s No. 7, with Rebellion’s No. 3 finishing in fourth place.

For much of the race it looked like Toyota’s No. 7 would win after leading comfortably from pole position. But late into the night the car encountered an engine problem and the 30-minute stop in the stands proved costly.

The race was first held in 1923. A total of 252,500 spectators attended in 2019, but there were none this year when the race started three months late because of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

“We miss the fans,” New Zealander Hartley said. “I look forward to seeing all the fans again.”

In other divisions:

United Autosports won the LMP2 division with the entry of Filipe Albuquerque, Paul Di Resta and Phil Hanson.

–In LMGTE Pro, the victory was claimed by Aston Martin Vantage AMR of Maxime Martin, Alex Lynn and Harry Tincknell (who drives for Mazda in the DPi division of IMSA).

–TF Sport won the LMGTE Am class.

The Toyota No. 7 took pole after former F1 driver Kamui Kobayashi narrowly edged out the Rebellion No. 1 team in qualifying.

In damp and humid conditions Mike Conway got away cleanly from the start, while Senna held off Buemi.

After nearly seven hours, Toyota’s No. 8 fell back after a 10-minute stop in the stands to fix a brake-cooling problem on Kazuki Nakajima’s car. Rebellion’s No. 1, driven by Frenchman Norman Nato, took advantage to move into second place behind Toyota’s No. 7.

Then came the decisive moment at 2:40 a.m. as the No. 7 – also featuring Argentine Jose Maria Lopez – encountered a turbo problem. When the car came back out it was back in fourth.

“We had a few problems early in the race,” Nakajima said. “Later they had a bigger issue than us.”

Rebellion’s No. 1 encountered a problem on the hood at around 9 a.m. and the change took six minutes, allowing the Rebellion No. 3 (Nathanael Berthon-Louis Deletraz-Romain Dumas) to close the gap.

It was becoming a tight battle between the two Rebellion cars behind Toyota’s No. 8.

At 12 p.m. Rebellion No. 3 with Dumas behind the wheel was only one second ahead of No. 1 driven by Menezes. Then both cars came in for a driver change with Deletraz swapping for Dumas on a lengthy stop, and Nato for Menezes as Rebellion No. 1 suddenly moved ahead of its team rival.

Dumas, a winner in 2016 with Porsche, appeared unhappy at the strategy decision to bring his car in first and the length of the stop. There were tense explanations in the team garage.

Colombian Tatiana Calderon, an F1 test driver with Alfa Romeo, was in the Richard Mille Racing Team in the LMP2 category. She was joined by German Sophia Florsch – an F3 driver – and Dutchwoman Beitske Visser. They placed ninth out of 24 in their category.