IndyCar

The muted results set to unlock an almighty IndyCar force

Aug 5 2020
By Jack Benyon

A new crop of American drivers are proving homegrown talent Stateside is still to be valued, despite many of IndyCar’s champions in recent decades having come from abroad.

Double IndyCar champion already Josef Newgarden, and Alexander Rossi – who flirted with Formula 1 briefly before establishing a home in IndyCar at Andretti Autosport – have proven that domestic drivers have the talent, and behind them, another crop is on the way up.

At the head of the queue is Colton Herta.

Son of perennial nearly-man Bryan, Colton needs no introduction as IndyCar’s youngest race winner after his Austin triumph last year, at 18 years and 359 days old.

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His rise was rapid and not without attention owing to his family lineage. A Pacific F1600 title win in his first full season of cars in 2013 was followed up with a switch to the UK in 2015, where he partnered future F1 driver Lando Norris in MSA Formula finishing third, before third place in Euroformula Open during a season in F3 machinery spelled the end of his European dalliance and a return to the States beckoned.

The lack of an Indy Lights title in two years of trying was disappointing given the number of cars and the strength of the opposition, although his second-season defeat did come at the hands of Patricio O’Ward, back now in IndyCar with Arrow McLaren SP after a short spell with Red Bull’s junior programme.

Despite the blow of defeat by O’Ward – which can hardly be judged too harshly given O’Ward’s ability – Herta still made the step into IndyCar in 2019 with the help of the Steinbrenner family, which part-owns the New York Yankees baseball franchise. The team was formed alongside a strong technical alliance with Andretti Autosport – with which Herta had contested the last two Indy Lights seasons alongside the support of the Steinbrenners – and the die was cast.

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It was a rollercoaster rookie year for Herta – bookended by that early Austin win and a season-finale victory from pole at Laguna Seca, showing the promise of the team and especially of Herta’s tyre management and raw pace, both impressive in his first year in the category.

His ability did not go unnoticed, and as well as the media attention that comes with becoming a series’ youngest winner, Herta was not short of offers from other teams.

Schmidt Peterson Motorsport – which would later become Arrow McLaren SP with the F1 outfit’s investment – showed strong interest, while other teams also seriously looked at Herta but couldn’t prise him away from the Andretti stable.

“I did get to speak with a lot of teams during the off-season and had quite a few offers to look through so it’s always nice when you have a good year like that and people have recognised it,” Herta told The Race.

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“And obviously I wanted some security moving forward and with a good team. I think this was probably the best team that I could have chosen, and really feel comfortable.

“I know a lot of the guys that work there from the past and when my dad raced there and also when I did Indy Lights for them so it just felt comfortable right away and I didn’t feel like I was coming to a new team, it felt like I’d been there for a long time.”

“Based on last year’s pace I knew it was possible to be right there with them and even beat them” :: Colton Herta

The decision to sign with Andretti meant the absorption of the Harding Steinbrenner operation in-house for 2020, and while that sounds like the potential for upheaval, very little has changed. Herta remains with Nathan O’Rourke as his race engineer, although Brian Page has come in as the number two having worked with Bryan Herta during his Andretti stint – meaning another familiar face for Colton.

The key target for 2020 was adding consistency where Herta and his team had failed in 2019. Despite the two wins, he finished seventh in the standings. A run of four races after the Austin win outside of the top 22 hurt his potential. Ovals were an area of weakness too, not always in terms of raw pace, like at Texas where he was running up front before a crash with Scott Dixon.

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But all in all, whether it was on track, in the pits, or in the build up – the new team was either hitting home runs or striking out, to borrow baseball vernacular.

A top-five finish at Texas alone where the incident with Dixon occurred would have put Herta ahead of the eventual rookie of the year winner Felix Rosenqvist, a vastly more experienced driver racing as the number two in the Chip Ganassi Racing team partnered with Dixon. You have to accept that a new team and a new driver are going to make those mistakes, and the upside from 2019 is clear to see. Judge it too harshly at your peril.

“That was really the goal, just trying to tune down the mistakes that were happening,” adds Herta.

“Really just work on consistency and that seems to be what’s been going on. So I’m happy to see that’s come to fruition. All the hard work and all the data acquisition and stuff over the off-season has gone well, to really learn from mistakes from last year which is important.”

With the off-season the perfect time to regroup and re-analyse – as well as spend some time playing the drums in his band The Zibs to relax – the Californian has been breezy in the first half of 2020. At Texas to start the season he righted the wrong of 2019 and delivered a top 10, before a fourth at Indianapolis and a pair of fifths including a race two front-row start at Road America.

The last outing at Iowa was hampered by a terrifying crash in race one where Herta was unaware of a restart being waved off, and was launched airborne over the back of Rinus VeeKay as he failed to slow in time while running in the top 10. Luckily both drivers were safe if shaken by the incident, and Herta struggled the next day after a set-up mistake that left the car with too much oversteer, which is tricky to deal with on a short oval like Iowa.

So, Herta’s string of consistent strong finishes came to an end, but he had delivered a run of strong performances and – crucially – turned them into solid results before the Iowa weekend went awry. That’s a blip on the radar, but if you look across the garage at Andretti, you can see what a good job Herta has done to net the results he has.

Rossi – now the undisputed leader and another driver Andretti worked desperately to re-sign last year as his previous deal with the team came to a close – has struggled enormously.

He finished the first three races outside of the top 14 to start the season (bear in mind his title rival last year Newgarden finished outside of the top 10 kist three times in the whole 2019 season) and has only recently recovered after a podium in race two at Road America was followed up with a pair of top 10s at Iowa.

Ryan Hunter-Reay has been quick at most events but you could write a book on his season which has involved some woeful mistakes – including spinning exiting the pitlane in both Iowa races! – alongside bad luck.

Amid that, Herta has become Andretti’s leading contender right now in just his second season in the category.

While his team-mates have proven how easy it is to flail inconsistently, Herta has delivered a wonderful start to the year. Joining such a strong team of drivers should have provided the young Herta with experience to feed off – which he also utilised last year – but there’s no doubt Herta is more than that now. He’s an equal in his own right, and he knows it. He believes it.

“I really wanted to learn off these guys, I got to learn a lot off them last year – obviously they have a lot of experience,” says Herta.

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“So, yeah, I think it was a bit of a surprise [to be ahead of them] but I knew it was possible. Based on last year’s pace I knew it was possible to be right there with them and even beat them.

“I knew we had to put it together and seems like we have been putting it together and consistently been right up at the front of the field.

“I think they have had some some pretty big issues as well though so I don’t think we’ve seen the best of them, they’ve definitely been fast, they have been right on pace with with me at the front but just had these issues.”

Herta is only going to benefit further when Hunter-Reay and Rossi hit their stride, as more relevant data will be available to Herta and the organisation should move forward, united as a whole.

It’s come at what should have been a tricky time for rookies and sophomores to find success in IndyCar. While track-time on the new coronavirus-reshuffled calendar isn’t usually decreased across a weekend, there’s been less time to make changes between sessions and that’s placed the emphasis on having a quick car out of the box, being able to analyse and trial solutions to problems quickly, and often, drive a car that just isn’t ideal.

Herta’s been an ace at that, but speaking to people involved earlier in his career, his strength of wringing the neck of an ill-performing car has in the past provided a form of weakness in that the engineering group doesn’t improve the car because Herta is masking its flaws. However, Herta has worked on this, and a balance between finetuning and using his talent to find the extra tenth has created a formidable package.

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The final major change for this year has been the aeroscreen. It’s added safety, but it has also forced some teams to go back to the drawing board on set-up as the aero over the car is different, and tyre performance has altered owing to the added weight of the device at the front of the car.

Herta’s squad has proven that it is capable of fighting off all of those challenges this year.

“These condensed weekends mean that you need to roll off the truck good, you only have an hour of practice,” adds Herta. “If you don’t find it out in the hour then you’re basically done for the rest of the weekend. So it’s really tough to nail it.

“I think the aeroscreen changed the balance quite a bit. Obviously, with the added weight and different downforce it produces, it does make it a challenge for the set-up because stuff from last year isn’t quite working as well.

“I think that that’s just the biggest thing – getting to grips with the aeroscreen and once you figure out the key thing that makes it work, it’s not a problem. I think you can work around it and kind of understand it all better. But I think a lot of guys are still trying to figure out that key thing that’ll make it work.”

With that, there’s just one remaining key left to unlock the season for Herta.

Scott Dixon won the first four races of the season, and Penske swept the last two races at Iowa with the particularly unlucky-in-2020 Newgarden finally netting a win after three poles. Those two drivers have been the stand outs in terms of fighting for wins.

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Herta is in seventh in the standings after his tricky weekend at Iowa, but seems to have traded last year’s win or bust trend for a consistent but not race-winning package.

It’s not all doom and gloom. For example, Rosenqvist – Dixon’s team-mate – has bagged a win, but a very inconsistent year otherwise means he’s two places behind Herta in the standings. So Herta’s approach isn’t off, but if he’s going to rise up the leaderboard once more, he’s going to have to find some of that race-winning sparkle he was able to muster last year.

“I just don’t think we have the race pace,” Herta confirms. “With the tyre deg and everything, I don’t think we’re on par with the race pace that some guys have.

“I think we do have a little bit of work to do to catch up to the Ganassi cars, it seems like they’ve been really strong in race pace this year. But you know I don’t think we’ve been that bad at all.

“We’ve been pretty much top five everywhere we’ve gone pace-wise so it’s always a good thing and I think we’ve really finished where we meant to be.

“Besides Indy GP I don’t think we’re as strong as fourth but I think pretty much everywhere else we finished where we were supposed to finish pace-wise.”

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Herta did something it took Rosenqvist 20 races to do in just two by winning at the second race last season. Now he’s added the consistency he was lacking, yet that race-winning pizzazz is currently absent – and with the coronavirus situation in America eating into the rescheduled calendar, he might be running out of time to rediscover it in 2020.

But in the meantime, he’s doing everything right. Not overdriving, taking the results that are available to him, and working on improving himself and everything around him.

Its the kind of attitude a 20-year-old rarely possesses, but this pragmatic driver is only a step away from joining that elite group Newgarden, Rossi and Dixon occupy.

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