Can Helio Castroneves perform the three-peat in upgraded Acura at Daytona's Rolex 24?

DAYTONA BEACH — Helio Castroneves has been cramming hard for the upcoming Rolex 24 at Daytona, using every available moment to get accustomed to the new hybrid-infused prototypes of the GTP class.

“It’s a challenge,” says the IndyCar legend. “For people who never drove this type of car — this is my first time driving a hybrid — understanding the system, understanding the little details, it’s taking a little time.”

As one of two “outsiders” sharing the cockpit with a pair of IMSA regulars, he tries to unload any pressure by sticking to the obvious.

“It’s the first race anyway. Nobody has points,” he says. “I don’t think there’s any pressure from that aspect. We want to do the best we can do, help ourselves and help them.”

Then he seems to catch himself and remember a very important point.

“We’re the defending champs!” he blurts. “We know exactly what we need to do.”

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Helio Castroneves hopes to celebrate in Daytona's Victory Lane for the third straight year after this weekend's Rolex 24.
Helio Castroneves hopes to celebrate in Daytona's Victory Lane for the third straight year after this weekend's Rolex 24.

In fact, the four-time Indianapolis 500 winner has been part of two straight Rolex 24 victories, last year with the same team (Myer Shank Racing’s No. 60 Acura) and two of the same co-drivers — fellow IndyCar racer Simon Pagenaud and defending IMSA champ Tom Blomqvist. Colin Braun replaces Oliver Jarvis on this year's roster.

Blomqvist wheeled the Acura prototype to the Rolex 24 pole in the dramatic closing minutes of Sunday’s qualifying session. He’ll lead the group of nine GTP machines to the green flag Saturday afternoon at 1:40.

As he did last year, Castroneves will watch and await his stints behind the wheel, knowing his final run could come in the race’s final hour, as happened last year when he relieved Blomqvist and outran the pursuers.

The No. 60 team’s margin of victory last year was just over 3 seconds, and the four cars on the lead lap were within 6 seconds of each other at the checkers.

If it comes down to that scenario again, it’ll help if Castroneves has found a certain comfort level inside the high-tech prototype, which this year replaces IMSA’s former marquee class — DPi.

“There’s so much,” he says of the instrument panel and all of the variables available to the drivers and engineers. “You have to develop, you have to learn, you have to understand what it’s doing. It’s a challenge.

“You can change one little knob, one little click, and you affect things. There’s so much you can do.”

Castroneves, at 47 and with 36 years of racing behind him, sounds as if he prefers little more than a steering wheel and gas pedal.

“I do,” he laughs. “Maybe young kids, maybe they like pushing all those buttons.”

Pagenaud, at 38, might not qualify as a young kid, but the former IndyCar champ seems more at ease with the technical aspects of the GTP equipment.

Simon Pagenaud
Simon Pagenaud

“As a technical guy, I love it,” he says. “The way Acura packaged the car is very sophisticated. They integrated the engine in such a nice way. The car is really well done. There’s so much you can do with the engineers to calibrate the system — it’s crazy, it’s fascinating.

“To me, it’s a huge upgrade from the old car. It really makes the DPi look like an old car now.”

On that, Castroneves agrees.

“It’s a little different, but the car is amazing,” he says. “The car is incredible. It’s going to be an interesting race, for sure.”

This article originally appeared on The Daytona Beach News-Journal: Rolex 24 at Daytona: Helio Castroneves, in new Acura, eyes three-peat