Roger Penske must be wondering what he's done to deserve such a volatile driver-line up in 2011. He's had Will Power's incandescent reaction
to events at the end of the race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Kurt Busch blowing up at him over the team radio in NASCAR - and now his long-time star driver Helio Castroneves seemingly intent on starting a war between himself and IndyCar officials.
Helio's fury was sparked after he was served a penalty for overtaking JR Hildebrand under local waved yellows on the final lap of the Indy Japan road course race at Motegi. Having finished in seventh place, Helio was outraged when the final results listed him in 22nd place instead.
Castroneves doesn't argue that he was wrong to overtake Hildebrand, and he was expecting to be docked the position he'd gained after the finish. But instead, IndyCar race director Brian Barnhart applied a drive-thru penalty - which, as the offence came on the last lap too late to serve the penalty, was commuted to being sent to the back of the lead lap, the equivalent of being docked 15 positions.
"Very disappointed for finishing 7th and being put to 22nd. This is just ABSURD!!!" he tweeted after the race. And he didn't stop there, as he launched a sustained all-out attack on Barnhart. "It is sad to see one person being responsible for bringing down an entire series," he said on Twitter.
"Brian [Barnhart] is inconsistent and even changes the rule book when is convenient for him, and his own personal interests," he continued, in a serious accusation of Barnhart's personal integrity as well as that of IndyCar Series as a whole. "In the same race in International television he penalizes some but not others."
Helio even went on to echo Paul Tracy's famous attack on former Champ Car chief steward Chris Kneifel in October 2001 by concluding: "Brian Barnhart is a circus clown!"
Not happy with leaving it there, Helio then submitted a column as part of a regular series for the Brazilian Metro
newspaper that ran with the title "IndyCar has a serious problem and it's called Brian Barnhart."
"I acknowledge that he has done a lot for the series, but he has definitely lost it," Castroneves wrote. "It's impossible to accept the decisions of a race director who is inconsistent, who issues different punishment to identical situations and who is condescending with some and harsh with others ... A professional series like IndyCar shouldn't have to deal with inconsistent and amateurish decisions by a race director."
Clearly feeling personally targeted, Castroneves added: "Why does the race director do something like this when it comes to Castroneves but acts differently when it comes to other drivers?"
Insisting that he wasn't demanding that the series should fire Barnhart, Castroneves nonetheless wrote: "Something has to be done. He either changes his concepts or [IndyCar] has to change the professional in the area."
Barnhart naturally rejected the criticism and insisted that the penalty applied to Castroneves - being sent to the back of the lead lap for a last lap infringement - was consistent with race control's rulings on other final lap issues, such as Giorgio Pantano's penalty for blocking Sebastien Bourdais at the end of the August race at Infineon. Helio trying to insist that a waved road course yellow is the same as a full course oval caution which resets the race to pre-caution positions was not valid in Barnhart's eyes.
"It's comparing apples and oranges," he wrote in an email to the Associated Press
. "As far as I know, since we have been road racing this was the only example of a blatant disregard of a local yellow, combined with a direct order from race control, that we have ever experienced."
With overtaking under a waved yellow a strict transgression in any road racing series, it seems that Castroneves has little ground to stand on with his complaint other than how harsh his 15-place penalty compares against that levied to Dario Franchitti, who was also sent to the back of the lead lap earlier in the race for crashing into Ryan Briscoe. Since Franchitti was already at the back as a result of the collision, it was hardly an onerous penalty on the #10 - but the fact remains that the penalty applied was the same under the rules.
Even Tracy - who was himself fined $50k, docked points and put on probation at the time for his post-race televised outburst toward Kneifel cited by Castroneves - seemed to think Castroneves had crossed the line with the reaction, replying on Twitter that Helio should take it easy: "Probably not the best idea to call one of your bosses ex-employee a clown, but hey what do I know ..."
Tracy himself was stung for a further $50k in July this year when he was fined for tweets that suggested IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard had interceded with race control over a penalty which had not
been applied to Dario Franchitti for colliding with Will Power at Toronto. Although Tracy said he had not made the tweets and his account must have been hacked, IndyCar still took a very dim view of the integrity of their CEO being directly attacked - and Helio's comments about Barnhart are little different.
"I think what Helio said was uncalled for, and it was unnecessary," said Randy Bernard, who added that such public criticism of series officials by competitors cannot be tolerated. "I think Helio's comments were completely ridiculous ... If he wants consistency, go back and see what Paul Tracy paid for what he said."
With Will Power already fined $30k last month for his post-race outburst and televised gestures - for which he quickly and profusely apologised once he had calmed down - it's hard to imagine that IndyCar won't take a very dim view indeed of Castroneves' sustained attack against the integrity of one of their most senior officials.
Suggestions include a $100k fine, the loss of points and possibly even suspending Castroneves for the remaining two races of the season at Kentucky and Vegas. However, IndyCar are known to dislike the latter measure as it's seen to be penalising the fans who have bought tickets to come to the event to see drivers like Castroneves, who is still one of their most popular and recognisable names following his win in the Dancing with the Stars
Perhaps the more serious repercussions for Helio will be over whether or not he retains his race seat in 2012. With Team Penske rumoured to be having to slim down to a two-car line-up unless they can find new sponsors, it's been widely assumed that Ryan Briscoe would be the odd man out left standing when the music stopped in this round of musical race seats. After all, Penske's hardly about to get rid of Will Power, the driver he still hopes will finish this season as IndyCar champion.
But Briscoe has been delivering some solid results this season - unlike Castroneves, who has been having one of his worst years of competition in the series without a win, and who now sits in 10th in the championship standings compared to Briscoe in 6th. Briscoe has also been keeping out of trouble with race control, which is more than can be said about his two volatile team mates this year.
If Roger Penske is looking for just one member of the team he can rely on to not give him a headache on Sunday afternoons, maybe Briscoe just moved into pole position to stay in the team - and Helio Castroneves possibly just talked himself out of a ride when his contract expires at the end of the season?