Real or virtual, Helio Castroneves ‘can’t wait’ to race at the Brickyard

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Helio Castroneves will race Saturday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway with hardly a prayer of winning. He won’t get to stand on the grid and soak in all the pomp and circumstances of the Indy 500. He won’t hear the roar of nearly 300,000 fans.

Saturday’s race is at the virtual version of the Brickyard, which is the site of this weekend’s Legends Trophy sim racing event.

Yet the effervescent Brazilian seems no less enthused about having a touchstone to the Greatest Spectacle in Racing (which has been postponed by the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic to Aug. 23 on NBC).

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“Look, anytime you have a chance to race Indianapolis, whether it’s real life or virtual, it’s awesome,” said Castroneves, who won Indy in 2001, ’02 and ’09. “I know I’m not going to learn much, but it is great. I’m excited to at the least do a race in Indianapolis. It’s the month of May, so even if it’s virtual, I still feel more comfortable.”

The Team Penske driver, who drives for the Acura team full time in the IMSA series, probably will feel a little more secure than in the handful of other Legends Trophy races he’s tried. Unlike the difficult McLaren and Brabham cars typically used on the virtual road courses around the globe, Saturday’s race will be contested in the familiar DW12 chassis of the NTT IndyCar Series.

That still might not help Castroneves, who said his main goal is to outdrive his Miami neighbor and former Penske teammate Gil de Ferran.

“I suck, man,” Castroneves said. “I’m terrible. My goal is to be better than Gil de Ferran. That’s it. Which doesn’t need much effort, man. I think if he played Pac-Man, he would be better.”

Castroneves and de Ferran (the 2003 winner at the Brickyard) are among seven former Indy 500 winners in the field, which also includes Dario Franchitti, Juan Pablo Montoya, Emerson Fittipaldi, Tony Kanaan and Mario Andretti (who will make his competitive sim racing debut).

Adrian Fernandez, Bryan Herta, Max Papis and Oriol Servia, who raced against Castroneves in CART and IndyCar, also are regulars in the series (which is for drivers older than 40).

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With the group chat constantly filling up with messages from a couple of dozen drivers, Castroneves treats the experience more like a family reunion than a fierce competition.

“It’s absolutely the most fun,” he said. “It’s fun because it’s hard to drive. We have no idea what we’re doing. We crash most of the time, but in the end, it’s serious, and it’s competitive, but it’s not like in a very mean way.

“Nobody’s judging anybody. Everybody has achieved success already in their life and career.”

Castroneves hopes there is more success on the horizon when IMSA restarts its season July 4 at Daytona International Speedway. That will keep him out of the IndyCar race on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course the same day, but he will be back at the Brickyard in August (after racing July 17-18 at Sebring International Raceway, which also will be closed to fans like Daytona).

“I can’t wait, man,” he said. “It’s great to be in a virtual race, but I can’t wait to do the real deal. I can’t, can’t wait to be in any car right now. Obviously, IMSA will be the first, but Indy will be next, and this is where I shine, baby.”

Valtteri Bottas on Silverstone pole; Nico Hulkenberg a surprising third

F1 Bottas Hamilton Silverstone
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Valtteri Bottas nipped Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton in Silverstone qualifying Saturday to maintain the team’s hammerlock on F1 results this season while Nico Hulkenberg was a surprise in third.

Hulkenberg is filling in for Sergio Perez for the second consecutive race while the Racing Point driver recovers from coronavirus.

It’s the best F1 start since 2016 for Hulkenberg, who was left without a full-time ride after the 2019 season. He finished 20th at Silverstone last week when an engine problem on the grid prevented him ftaking the green.

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“The last seven to eight days have been crazy,” Hulkenberg said after qualifying. “This weekend I felt much better prepared. Q3 was just head down, full beans, and give it whatever I had.

“I’m a bit surprised to be standing here, but there’s a big smile on my face.”

Red Bull’s Max Verstappen qualified fourth and will be among the field trying to derail the Mercedes duo that has won the first four races of an F1 season delayed because of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

“Feels good,” Bottas said after nipping Hamilton by a few hundredths of a second on his final lap for his 13th career pole position. ” I just love qualifying especially, when it goes well. Proud to drive this car. The race pace is there, so our first job is to get a good start off the line tomorrow and go from there.”

The impressive lap came two days after Bottas, who won the season opener in Austria, announced a one-year contract extension with the team.

Mercedes also is set to begin negotiating a new deal with Hamilton, who has won the past three races in F1 but was disappointed Saturday.

“Valtteri did a great job, but for me, it wasn’t a perfect last lap,” he said. “I don’t think many teams will be doing a one-stop race tomorrow so let’s wait and see how things turn out.”