Seventh in the IndyCar championship standings hardly screams ‘fastest driver in the series’, but Colton Herta has a genuine claim to lay for that title in 2021.
Not since 2012 has a non-Penske driver topped the best average qualifying position order in a season outright, and that was Dario Franchitti of Ganassi. Also of Ganassi, Scott Dixon did have a series-best average of 5.5 in 2019 but that was tied with Alexander Rossi and Josef Newgarden.
At the halfway point this season Herta’s average is 4.6, a full position better than anyone else and higher than six out of the last 10 IndyCar seasons.
IndyCar best qualifying averages
2021 (so far) Colton Herta (Andretti Autosport) 4.6
2020 Will Power (Team Penske) 5.4
2019 Scott Dixon (Chip Ganassi Racing), Josef Newgarden (Penske), Alexander Rossi (Andretti) 5.5
2018 Power (Penske) 2.8
2017 Power (Penske) 4.4
2016 Simon Pagenaud (Penske) 3.9
2015 Power (Penske) 4.1
2014 Helio Castroneves (Penske) 5.7
2013 Power (Penske) 4.3
2012 Dario Franchitti (Ganassi) 5.8
That stat highlights an odd year for Herta where after merely two races many onlookers appeared convinced he should be on his way to Formula 1, but in the eight races since he’s finished in the top 12 only three times.
It’s difficult to fault Herta’s season in the sense that it feels like he’s made no more errors than the top four fighting for the championship.
While it might be easy to blame the Andretti Autosport team he drives for – which continues to struggle for results with its three other drivers – Herta has had the pace to compete up front in each race this year bar the Indianapolis 500, which is a double-points affair that has hurt his score.
Herta’s season so far
Barber – Caught in Josef Newgarden’s accident after qualifying seventh
St Pete – Dominated, won
Texas – Right rear bearing issue in race one, fifth in race two
Indy road course – Contact with Marcus Ericsson, finished 13th
Indy 500 – Struggled on scuffed tyres, finished 16th after qualifying second
Detroit – Started sixth but got off strategy, finished 14th. Battled for the lead in race two and took fourth
Road America – Strong drive to second
Mid-Ohio – In victory contention before a fuel hose issue, late stop halted recovery drive, 13th.
“It’s been OK,” is how Herta characterises his season in an exclusive interview with The Race.
“We’ve had a lot of chances to win, which is nice, but we just haven’t executed them.
“We had a really good shot in Detroit, a really good shot in Mid-Ohio. Obviously the win in St Pete was great.
“But yeah, we have the best qualifying average in the series at the moment and the results unfortunately aren’t coming out of that.
“So, there has been a little bit of bad luck here and there, and just not executing perfectly.
“But the biggest thing is that the pace is there, that’s the most important thing, and the race pace has been there, as well as the qualifying pace, but like I said things just haven’t gone our way.
“It’s hard, if you’re finishing 12th and you have 12th-place pace, it’s really down and not a good time.
“But when you have the pace and things aren’t going your way, at least there’s some positives out of it.
“It hasn’t really panned out how I think any of us wanted to or how we were looking at it but we still have plenty of races to go to try to crack into that top three.
“A championship at this point is…we’d have to have a heck of a run, it is a little bit unrealistic but we can always kind of set ourselves up for next year.
“Finish off the year really strong, put in a lot of podiums and hopefully get a few more wins. And that’ll kind of give us a good baseline of what we need to win a championship for next year.”
Andretti managed to do just that last year with Herta and Alexander Rossi particularly going on a strong run to end 2020.
The struggle in that season was the introduction of the aeroscreen. Andretti suffered more than most teams in adapting its set-ups to cope with the added weight high up and at the front of the car, which encourages understeer.
After that late-year run, many expected Herta and Rossi to be in title contention this season but Herta is all but out of the conversation and Rossi is another 51 points behind Herta having yet to score a podium this season.
Herta said his stablemates are “pushing hard to get going” and praised the atmosphere in the team despite Ryan Hunter-Reay and James Hinchcliffe being under heavy pressure to keep their seats.
But he also offered his thinking as to why the team perhaps hasn’t continued the form of last season into this.
“The biggest thing is I think there’s been some pretty big steps from other teams, like McLaren, Rahal, Coyne, they’ve made big steps,” says Herta.
“I think Ganassi and Penske have made steps, but obviously they were already really good last year. So I think their steps are smaller.
“Whereas a lot of guys have found a lot of pace. So whether that be just being more comfortable in IndyCar or what it seems to be is, they’ve found some stuff with the aeroscreen that’s working better for them and set-up with the car is better.
“It’s so competitive right now that you need to be on top of it as soon as you roll off the truck, you need a good car, and you can’t be trying to find big chunks in practice, you need to be finetuning at that point.
“The car needs to roll off the truck good and if you’re not, you’re just going to be behind for the whole weekend.”
That’s not an issue Herta has experienced too much in the sense that his car has had the pace to fight at the front. But where it has hurt his season is that those around him are performing better and in a position to capitalise better on any mistakes Herta and his team may have made.
To illustrate this, at the end of the 2020 season only five drivers in the top 10 had an average finishing position of 9.7 or better.
In 2021 so far, only two drivers in the top 10 have a finishing record worse than that, Herta with 11.2 and Takuma Sato with 10.6.
These stats mean the lack of execution Herta mentioned has hurt the team this year, but his pace is strong.
Since Herta entered IndyCar, The Race has been continually impressed by his ability to fix his weaknesses. In his first season he had really high peaks with two victories but lacked consistency. Last year he was much more consistent and better on his tyres. This year he’s vastly improved his fuel saving.
It’s an admirable growth Herta is going through and one that – even if this is another season that’s not going his way – is making him a more and more consistently brilliant and all-rounded driver.
Dixon and Newgarden have provided that blueprint and Herta is following in their footsteps.
Of all of IndyCar’s young stars, Herta and championship leader Alex Palou appear the most rounded and that is a trait that’s proven to equal IndyCar success, when it’s married with speed. And speed has never been an issue for Herta, which is why he’s currently the series’ fastest driver over one lap.