For all of Red Bull and AlphaTauri’s public excitement over Nyck de Vries – for all the talk of his level of multi-faceted experience, his once-upon-a-time status as a world-beater in karting and his considerable trophy cabinet in single-seaters – in the wake of his termination from the energy drink giant’s Formula 1 set-up the overriding fact becomes instead that he was always second choice. That seat was supposed to go to Colton Herta.
But Herta, then 22, was blocked, first by the cold maths of F1 superlicence eligibility and then by the FIA’s lack of interest in budging the rules for Red Bull and the California native.
The De Vries call-up that made possible has yielded zero points and little in the way of meaningful highlights.
He was under pressure from day one, totally flailing from something like day 30, and a ‘dead man walking’ not long after, to the point where – even while, as my colleague Edd Straw pointed out, his performances didn’t exactly necessitate a change, it wasn’t in the least bit a surprise that he got canned, just the timing of it.
The dalliance left Red Bull worse off and De Vries worse off. But has it also left F1 worse off? Has the FIA’s inflexibility – and, more pertinently and much less understandably, a bewildering points allocation in the first place – closed an open window for a potential American star and instead signed AlphaTauri up for a half-season of ‘place-holdering’?
That kind of outlook does not seem to be an uncommon reaction, especially from those invested in Herta as an F1 prospect and a potential F1 star – at a time when the likes of Ferrari F1 boss Fred Vasseur openly talk up (as a way of playing down the appeal of the Andretti-Cadillac entry) the importance of US driver representation at the sharp end of the grid.
It’s true that the F1 train can almost never be expected to make multiple stops at the station of all but the most elite of junior prospects, and therefore that Herta may never again be as high on an F1 team’s shopping lists as last year even assuming that he remains a permanent fixture at or towards the front in IndyCar.
But it is equally true that there’s a good chance that Herta’s superlicence predicament simply spared him from starring in his own version of the De Vries 2023 saga.
A conviction to the contrary would require one or both of two assumptions – that Herta is flat-out better than De Vries and would’ve adapted faster and performed better, and/or that Herta would’ve been given a longer leash and been more protected in his status after 10 races even amid Red Bull’s sudden interest in evaluating Daniel Ricciardo.
IS HERTA CLEARLY BETTER?
That Herta would instantly make a much bigger impact on De Vries in F1 feels the far less likely of the two above-mentioned scenarios.
The American’s F1 case lies in the fact he has long asserted himself as one of IndyCar’s top-liners at a young age, and that before that he’d shown a certain aptitude on the European ladder.
He was a very credible foil to Carlin team-mate Lando Norris back in British F4, outscoring the eventual champion over the second half of what was a sole campaign in the category for both. He then left a good impression in Euroformula Open as part of Campos’s expansion to the curio Formula 3 series, perhaps best known in the modern F1 context for being dominated by current Aston Martin F1 reserve Felipe Drugovich and serving as part of Yuki Tsunoda’s quickfire European racing education.
But it’d be quite the leap of faith to suggest that translates into better prospect status than that of De Vries, who for all of the weird twists and turns of his junior career absolutely filled up his trophy cabinet in various categories. And as good as Herta has been in IndyCar, De Vries’ achievements in another superb grid in Formula E – including a title! – aren’t to be downplayed.
Add to that De Vries’ regular paddock presence and fairly extensive F1 mileage during the 2022 season, and it feels like there’s a fairly robust case to suggest Herta would’ve started a step or half a step behind.
He did himself have a test with McLaren, and is thought to have done reasonably well, but it didn’t lead to more than that – unlike, say, for IndyCar peer Alex Palou.
It might be a matter of timing, it might be a matter of McLaren having its sights on the Spaniard for its IndyCar roster while Herta is firmly committed to Andretti on that side of the pond, but it also seems possible – and is at least gossip-corroborated – that Palou, who is on an absolute tear in IndyCar right now and was a European-based prospect for longer than Herta, simply made the bigger impression as a potential F1 fit.
WOULD HERTA BE GIVEN MORE TIME?
In any case, whatever Red Bull saw and heard it clearly liked, and it feels eminently plausible that Herta, five years younger than De Vries, would’ve been given more time to sort himself out.
It sure seems like De Vries, given his experience and knowledge base, was brought in to ideally slot into the Pierre Gasly role of team benchmark. At the very least it is now clear that a defeat against the year-three, still-in-a-development-curve Yuki Tsunoda was unacceptable. But Herta – Herta could’ve probably got away with a deficit to the Japanese in the early going.
…Or not! Because, ultimately, De Vries’ exit is a reflection of Red Bull’s continuous sink-or-swim approach to its junior talent. A good first impression is paramount, and adaptability is valued hugely.
The Dutchman will have likely got better, got faster with more mileage, but Red Bull’s decision shows it was confident he would not get good enough quickly enough for that to make a tangible difference to its F1 programme the way an old-spec Ricciardo may.
This also seems to be part of a trend that suggests a – perhaps only too natural – bias at Red Bull towards its homegrown talent, the drivers it had followed closely for longer and whose development it had micro-managed through various steps before F1. ‘Bias’ in this case doesn’t mean preferential treatment – but rather an expanded belief in their upside.
See, for instance, Daniil Kvyat’s two-year recall into the F1 set-up even after Red Bull seemed to accept there was no future for him in the main team.
But when it comes to the shorter-term alliances, the ruthless decisions seem to come easier. De Vries’ dismissal is almost a carbon copy of what happened to Brendon Hartley – who had been brought in as an outsider even if he’d had a Red Bull Junior Team stint a decade prior. Hartley got the season, but like De Vries he was for all intents and purposes just waiting for the axe past a certain point – and that axe would’ve come just as quickly if Red Bull had succeeded in manoeuvring Lando Norris into a Toro Rosso.
And yes, fellow ‘former RBJT member, subsequent outsider’ Alex Albon is the exception to the rule here, but this is something where we can only deal in hypotheticals and agree or disagree – but it seems logical that, were Albon’s rookie season not as unexpectedly good as it was, he would’ve been deemed very expendable.
Whatever the methodology, it is almost certainly easier to say, “well, this is why we hadn’t signed him before” or, “well, this is why we had dropped him a decade ago” than to come to the same conclusion about a longer-term prospect whose development was long-overseen within the project.
Herta would’ve ultimately come in as an outsider. And it’s not as if 2022 was the first time Red Bull would’ve heard of him – he won twice at its track in Euroformula Open and, more pertinently, it had Dan Ticktum as a junior in that British F4 season.
It didn’t snap up Herta then, did it?
SO IS HE BETTER OFF?
Well, we started by asking the man himself.
“Maybe. I still have a lot of … I don’t know what you’d say – I trust in my abilities so I don’t think I’d be in the position he’s in,” Herta said when The Race’s Jack Benyon asked him if he felt fortunate.
“It’s easy to say that standing over here though. I’m sure there’s a lot of pressure and whatnot. But yeah, I don’t know, it doesn’t seem like he had the pace or… but it is only 10 races. It’s tough to get your foot in and get situated.
“So I understand both sides of it. But… if I was going to be in that situation, it’s obviously nice that I have a full-time ride.”
Ultimately the failed bid to bring Herta to AlphaTauri has instead meant a sixth IndyCar season, which has been a very weird one so far. In some of the rounds, he just hasn’t looked particularly quick, while in those where he has looked seriously quick – most notably the recent one-two punch of back-to-back poles at Road America and Mid-Ohio – something has got in his way.
It did all come good last weekend in Toronto, though, as Herta scored his first podium of the campaign.
But he sits ninth in the championship still, and none of that is helping accrue any more of the much-needed superlicence points. That may need to wait until 2024 at the earliest.
But even if he did possess an F1 superlicence right now, an IndyCar scouting report requested by any F1 team would have the following first three lines: “Palou’s the one you want”; “No, really, got get Palou”; “Before we get to these other ones, how about Palou?”.
At the same time, routes to the F1 grid clearly remain for Herta down the line. His US passport should help, particularly depending on the outcome of the Logan Sargeant experiment, while if Andretti Cadillac is granted an F1 entry after all Herta has long sounded like a total shoo-in for that drive.
But equally plausible, and perhaps even more plausible, is that Herta just stays a career IndyCar driver until he’s too far along into his career to be a tangible target for F1 teams.
If Red Bull’s 2022 bid had succeeded, it would’ve guaranteed him F1 starts – already a massive achievement and a dream for many, and something that professional drivers just don’t tend to ever reject.
But while that move falling apart meant no 2023 debut, has it actually done damage overall to Herta one day becoming a lasting presence in F1 – or has it just prevented him from being quickly burned for grand prix racing?