Colton Herta is facing his longest IndyCar win drought.
It’s a stark juxtaposition to last year. He’d already been heavily linked to an Andretti seat in Formula 1 in 2021 had it bought the Sauber-run Alfa Romeo team, but even with that falling through there was no lack of F1 momentum into the following year.
By this time in 2022, he’d had his McLaren F1 testing programme confirmed.
This year, it’s been all quiet on the F1 front – until last weekend, anyway, when the Andretti Autosport driver went viral for retweeting an incorrect report that Brad Pitt was to drive “an actual F1 car alongside the rest of the grid at Silverstone” and lampooning his own difficulties in securing a superlicence. (Pitt will actually drive what is believed to be a modified F2 car between F1 on-track sessions).
“It made me laugh when I saw that tweet that ESPN put out,” said Herta. “Even though it was false, I had to take advantage of it!”
Perhaps there has been some burnout from F1 teams trying to make a deal for Herta work, especially as the FIA all but put an end to Herta joining AlphaTauri last year as he doesn’t have that elusive superlicence.
Herta also faces the difficulty that, due to the superlicence’s three-year cycle, he’s about to lose the points for finishing third in IndyCar in 2020. That means he needs to win this year’s title, or look at gaining points from F1 practice appearances – there’s up to 10 points available, one point per practice session completed with 100km of running – or other championships in addition.
He’s also signed a lucrative contract extension with Andretti that paddock sources indicate makes him one of the highest-paid drivers on the grid, committing him to Andretti through 2027. While Michael Andretti is keen to get Herta to F1 – like he is with any American drivers he believes are capable – it’s unclear whether this new contract would allow Herta to leave for another F1 team with Andretti still trying to join the championship.
Looking at this season from the outside, it doesn’t exactly scream ‘give me an F1 seat’ either. But it’s actually been a lot better than it looks on paper.
What is believed to be a corded tyre sent Herta spiralling down the order in St Petersburg, after he’d qualified second behind team-mate Romain Grosjean.
Stuck in the pack after an early stop, he was dumped into the wall by Will Power while in seventh. Restore him to that position and he’d now be eighth in the championship, but crucially only 29 points off the championship lead instead of 45.
A seventh at Texas and fourth in Long Beach followed, before his 14th place at Barber – a result that was mostly down to a poor qualifying by his standards, and being gazumped by drivers around him on the better three-stop strategy. He got up to sixth early on in the race but fell significantly at the end of the stint.
As you begin to unpick some of the intricacies, qualifying starts to become all the more important when breaking down how his team-mates have beaten Herta. Grosjean didn’t have the cording issue in St Pete. As for Kyle Kirkwood’s win at Long Beach, he and Grosjean both had the benefit of clean air to conserve their tyres better in the races they led the majority of.
“I don’t think it’s been terribly a problem if you kind of look a little bit more into it,” said Herta when asked by The Race about tyre wear.
“Obviously St Pete wasn’t great for me or for Kyle with tyre wear. Other than that, it’s been fairly straightforward and fine.”
At Texas he was seventh and kept it clean, even if the crash experienced by Grosjean, who had made his way further forward in the late battle, was an unlucky one. And this leads into where you have to give Herta some credit.
For two full seasons now, people like me have been writing that Herta needs a different mindset, that he needs to become more consistent in order to fight for a title. That looks like exactly what we’re seeing from him to start the season.
There’s multiple instances where he could have risked more, but instead he’s bagged the points where it’s possible. Both Grosjean and Kirkwood have had self-inflicted errors this year whereas Herta only has the St Petersburg crash – yes, he was on the outside, but he could have perhaps done more to avoid it – as a blot on his 2023 record.
Of course, stacking up those top-five finishes is going to be important, especially when his team-mates have shown that the car is capable of doing so.
But overdriving and taking big risks is where Herta has perhaps come undone in the last two seasons – after a very consistent 2020 year, it’s worth adding, as he’s shown he can do it – so this feels like some progress.
It must be annoying that his team-mates are winning and taking poles, but we know Herta can do that and the fact he isn’t forcing it indicates he’s doing the right thing.
On the flip side, it must be great to know what the Andretti package is capable of this year. The whole team had a reset and a rejig in the off-season and it’s come back as one of the strongest packages.
“The big factors are going to come in later in the season when we go to Iowa and Gateway,” added Herta. “We’re looking at mostly testing at both those places before we get there. That’s kind of the real question mark for the whole season.
“We know we have great cars on road courses and street courses. Indy, Texas went fairly well for us.
“The big questions are the short ovals and if the improvements we kind of made in the off-season carry into real life.”
Herta has the seventh-best average start in the series too, so he’s definitely not hanging around in qualifying. There’s just so many things that come together to decide where a driver ends up in IndyCar.
Perhaps it’s the nature of F1 team management that those in charge are more likely to notice a driver winning and taking poles than one who is down the points standings but is displaying an improved level of consistency.
That’s not a dig at F1 team bosses as they surely don’t have time to deep-dive into every IndyCar driver’s results and what’s going on behind the scenes.
But perhaps those who did do that would be even keener to get Herta in the F1 fold to take a look at him based on the improvements he appears to have made.
And if you need any reminder of his ability, just reacquaint yourselves with one of the best pieces of driving you likely saw in 2022: an IndyCar, in the wet, full opposite lock, all steering and pedals to save the unsaveable.
"I think this is my most fun win ever!"
— NTT INDYCAR SERIES (@IndyCar) May 9, 2023
“The one thing about that is I’ve never had this feeling in the car ever, or been able to remember a feeling from a specific time in racing, especially one from a year ago,” Herta says when asked about that moment, from last year’s Indianapolis road course race, by The Race.
“I can tell you exactly how everything felt when it happened. Obviously we talk about how we feel everything through our butts. I know that same feeling in my butt right now, which is so interesting. Not to be weird, talking about butts!
“It’s so interesting. I still have that same feeling. I can feel that motion, which I’ve never been able to feel in any [other] moment of my career, like remember it so clearly.
“It was something that I don’t think I’ll ever forget. Obviously we’ve all seen it a whole bunch of times now.
“I hope I don’t have to replicate it again because it definitely wasn’t the fastest way to go through that corner.”
There’s a risk of rain in Indianapolis again this weekend, so Herta may not get his wish of not having to do that again!
But his car control here – and on the out-lap with a full tank of fuel and cold tyres, which you can watch above – are the perfect reminder of Herta’s lofty peaks.
This weekend will be the biggest test of his patience, because of both that win last year and his ongoing drought.
Risking everything to break it would be a betrayal of his low-key but strong 2023 so far.