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Is there still an F1 case for IndyCar's biggest enigma?

by Matt Beer
4 min read

Daniel Ricciardo’s fifth place in Canadian Grand Prix qualifying for RB was a glimpse of why people - including key members of the Red Bull Formula 1 hierarchy - still believe in him. A reminder of the driver they know is still in there somewhere, of the performance he is capable of when everything clicks.

Around the same time, just over 700 miles away from Montreal, at another damp North American racetrack, a driver who could’ve been in that RB F1 car was doing something similar. Actually, something even more impressive.

And it didn’t turn into the result they wanted in their race either.

Rewind 21 months to the final ripples of the driver market chaos unleashed by Oscar Piastri spurning Alpine for McLaren (and, ironically, Ricciardo’s seat), and what was then AlphaTauri only landing on the ultimately disappointing Nyck de Vries as Alpine-bound Pierre Gasly’s replacement because it couldn’t get dispensation for IndyCar star Colton Herta to get a superlicence.

De Vries didn’t last long before being ousted for Ricciardo.

Would Herta have fared better? Had the FIA seen fit to apply a similar kind of regulatory discretion that appears to be there for the Kimi Antonelli case right now (much to the irritation of the IndyCar community), would it be Herta - not Ricciardo - in the RB right now?

Daniel Ricciardo, RB, F1

Perhaps not. He’d have been coming in with far, far less F1 and European racing experience than De Vries, and facing a tougher acclimatisation process at a team prone to impatience.

It’s now over two years since Herta even won an IndyCar race. A superlicence is getting even further away as he’s only been 10th in the last two championships there.

He’s still somewhere in the long-term F1 mix given he’s Andretti’s chosen one but that just leaves him tangled in the saga over its entry. And is he definitely a better bet for F1’s next American than his IndyCar team-mate Kyle Kirkwood?

And yet… last weekend at Road America - the greatest road course in the United States - Herta was two seconds quicker than anyone else in wet practice. His margins in the wet early parts of qualifying were humbling for his rivals, too. He was surely on course for pole before the red flag for Josef Newgarden’s savage crash.

Colton Herta, Andretti, IndyCar

Newgarden stymied Herta’s race too, inadvertently spinning him to the back at the first corner as everyone checked up to avoid tangling Ganassi team-mates Linus Lundqvist and Marcus Armstrong at the front.

And yet… Herta recovered from last to sixth, via his own clash with Lundqvist and on an off-sequence strategy. He finished just 3.5s behind Kirkwood - who’d led the early laps - in a race that ran without full course yellows from lap nine of 55 onwards.

Herta’s only just 24 years old. There’s still time for his career to look very different.

Is the gap between his obvious talent and pace and his race results down to him or Andretti or the combination of both? Is he just a driver of very high peaks who’ll always be inconsistent in between, who’ll always lose his head when races slip away from him, who’ll blunder and blunder - like crashing when fighting for the Indianapolis 500 lead as he did this year rather than biding his time? Are his failings a product of his circumstances or is he creating those circumstances?

Right now, he looks like IndyCar’s answer to mid-1990s Jean Alesi in F1.

Jean Alesi, Ferrari, F1

You know there’s a very special ability there, you have no idea if he’d be able to really channel it properly when it mattered. You fear he’s going to get to the end of his career - as far away as that looks right now - having not actually achieved what he should’ve done.

Would Herta have qualified the RB fifth for the Canadian GP?

He’s probably fast enough to, once he had the F1 experience. How many current F1 drivers could top a wet Road America practice session by two seconds? Probably not a lot of them, even if they had IndyCar experience.

There’s something special in Herta and it’s been obvious since he started his full-time IndyCar career and won almost immediately.

The speed is there to be a multiple IndyCar champion and/or the most competitive American in F1 in decades. Is the rest of the package there beyond that raw pace? Will we ever get chance to find out?

Colton Herta, Andretti, F1

Too many question marks, not enough results. Yet.

But enough splashes of magic like that Road America weekend to keep you wondering and wishing we’ll one day get the chance to see those questions answered, in an environment that allows Herta to maximise all that promise.

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