until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League


The man who should’ve had De Vries’ seat faces crunch races too

by Jack Benyon
9 min read

until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

With Nyck de Vries under so much pressure at Alpha Tauri, it’s hard not to think about what might have happened to Colton Herta if the IndyCar star got that seat for the 2023 Formula 1 season.

After all, he was at the head of the queue for that drive before it was made clear no dispensation would be made by the FIA for him to get a superlicence.

While De Vries has to somehow concentrate on the task at hand and turn around his fortunes, Herta may well be at the opposite end of the spectrum when it comes to job security and season momentum. But he needs to be, given how the first few months of his 2023 campaign went.

Mid-Ohio this weekend is one of his best tracks on the IndyCar calendar and he’s followed up his Road America pole with another one there, giving him an average Mid-Ohio start of 4.5 so far.

But Sunday may well be a good test for how far he has come this season because he often encountered adversity in the previous Mid-Ohio races.

Last year he was shunted off by Andretti Autosport team-mate Romain Grosjean amid a team-wide meltdown. In 2021 a fuel probe issue meant a second-place start yielded 13th. In the 2020 double-header, a win was preceded by ninth from 13th on the grid. And in 2019, he managed eighth from seventh.

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The pole at Road America last time out felt like something of a general breakthrough for Herta, though.

Ever since he was absorbed into the Andretti line-up fully for 2020 he’s felt like the team’s top driver but this year both newcomer Kyle Kirkwood and Grosjean bagged poles before he could while Kirkwood gave the team its first win of the season in Long Beach.

While 2023 hasn’t featured any of the high-profile errors from key positions that Herta’s recent campaigns have been punctuated by, there hasn’t been a lot of demonstrating his scintillating pace either, which is why his Road America speed seemed significant.

It’s annoying in a sense because people criticise Herta for not being more consistent, and then when he’s consistent they criticise him for not dominating races! It’s tough when you’re being judged at Herta’s level.

Herta said that he felt every race this year has thrown up different issues for his #26 team and there’s not been a running theme for why he hadn’t scored any poles before this latest pair.

The Race asked Herta’s engineer Nathan O’Rourke if he agreed as part of an exclusive interview discussing multiple parts of Herta’s season so far.

“I think that’s a great way to put it,” O’Rourke replied.

“It’s the type of thing too where people have asked me, ‘has he lost some confidence because of that?’.

“The answer is ‘absolutely not’, he’s not that type of guy for one thing. But the other thing is, you look at it and Andretti now has got half the pole positions this year. That’s a fun statistic to pass around when you’ve only done two races but now that we’re eight races in, Andretti’s been on pole for four of them.

“It shows there’s no reason to not have confidence in that.

“Especially for Colton, he obviously knows what his skills are, that he’s a good enough driver and we’re showing that we’re giving him all the tools he needs to go do the job.

“So yeah, I don’t think there’s any reason to lose confidence.

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“But you’re right, it just comes down to execution. For whatever reason there’s been all kinds of silly things that have maybe not worked out up to this point this year, but it hasn’t been because the potential hasn’t been there.

“Both St Pete and Detroit, those are two races where I felt like we had a shot at pole if everything had gone well. And Barber, I felt like we should have been close.

“Colton is 23 now and he has 10 pole positions. That’s pretty awesome, so he obviously knows how to do it.

“We know how to do it as a team. So it’s just a matter of going out there and there’s always things that happen outside of our control in those sessions, and we’ve had a couple of situations where that’s happened where you can’t put it on Colton and you can’t put it on the team.

“It’s just like something out of our control happened, but people up and down the paddock have the same set of stories.

“I do feel like we’re in a position where we have confidence that there are more poles to come this year.”

O’Rourke was speaking just before the Mid-Ohio weekend – where Herta instantly proved his point.

And if you want a live representation of that confidence, after taking his second pole in a row on Saturday, when asked about Honda locking out the top six Herta said “Honda is just better, it’s simple”, before quoting Will Ferrell’s Talladega Nights character: “They wake up in the morning and they piss excellence”.

Herta’s finished outside of the top 10 three times this year. One of those really wasn’t his fault in St Petersburg, where he was dumped into a wall by Will Power.

Detroit was a drive from 24th to 11th after he hit the wall in qualifying, and at Barber both he and Kirkwood seemed to struggle and finished in their starting positions despite moving forwards initially.

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Herta especially really looks like he’s struggled with tyre wear at times this year. Though he denied that earlier in the season, suggesting it was only applicable at the St Pete opener, Barber was another race where it looked like Herta in particular dropped off late in the stint.

Asked if that’s an area the team and Herta need to improve, O’Rourke replied: “100%. We’ve shown we can be very good about tyre deg and we’ve had some cases where we’ve been very poor at it. Those are the ones you tend to remember the most because they’re more high-profile disasters, right?

“But yeah, that’s something we talk about a lot and it’s something we’re always working on.

“We’ve identified a few things about both the way we set up our cars and the way that Colton drives that we need to be careful with when it comes to managing tyres over a stint.”

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Tyres were not the issue at Road America where Herta appeared to be in total control of the race apart from the penultimate pitstop where he was jumped but quickly retook the net lead. Then he tumbled down the order in the final stint.

He had pitted a lap sooner than many of his rivals, and even though it’s a long lap, it was clear something other than the early stop was at play as he was breezed past by four cars.

“I think we understand it completely,” explains O’Rourke.

“We know what went on there. It was compounded by an error that led us to needing to hit a bigger [fuel] number than what we ever would have expected in the last stint, much more so than just even coming in a lap early.

“But basically, once all that happened at the time, we knew we were in big trouble.

“For the first few laps of the final stint even, hitting a number that we had originally planned on we were able to keep the #10 car [eventual winner Alex Palou] behind us. But once that target shifted, we knew it wasn’t going to be possible.

“Certainly made some mistakes there.

“All we can do now is understand what we did wrong and make sure it doesn’t happen again. I do think that’s something that’s one of our strengths – understanding our mistakes and not making repeat mistakes.

“We all feel good and confident that that sort of thing won’t happen again going forward.”

It’s hard to ascertain the exact root of the issue then, although it sounds like a miscalculation was made in terms of how much fuel went into the car.

At least O’Rourke is confident the issue is solved.

It hurt Herta because he reckoned he’d been cruising, saving fuel for most of the day, and had the pace to fight with Palou on an even playing field. A victory would have also put him sixth in the championship.

At the moment he’s 141 points behind series leader Palou in ninth, although Palou’s not had any issues that have hampered his race finishes while it feels like Herta has had more things go wrong in races than not. Don’t forget, Palou’s 74 points clear of second place, too!

A top-two championship finish is what Herta needs to guarantee that superlicence if F1 is ever going to be an option, so that’s another reason the lost points at Road America stung.

2023 Honda Indy 200

But if anyone in the field is capable of going and winning multiple races to put themselves back in contention, Herta is in that very small and exclusive club.

One area Herta’s season has been in flux is in the strategist department, with his father Bryan moving away from Colton’s car after a long period to work with Kirkwood from the second race of the season.

That meant Herta got new Andretti addition and ex-Foyt team boss Scott Harner, but now Andretti chief operating officer Rob Edwards has moved over for Mid-Ohio this weekend with Harner heading to Devlin DeFrancesco’s car. It’s being treated as an experimental exercise and Herta dropped a strong hint that it’s as a consequence of how the Road America race was lost.

“I think it had a little bit [of influence on the decision], but for that stuff, they’re obviously pretty critical on strategists after every race when they’re going over everything and they have their meetings and I’m sure they get drilled pretty good in those meetings if they make a wrong decision,” he said.

“But it’s tough. It’s just like the drivers; you’ve got to do it, and you’ve got to do it every time, and if you can’t, it sucks, but that’s the way it is.”

That flux simply can’t have been ideal for Herta and the strategists calling his races, but Herta’s not the type of driver to throw his toys out of the pram. All of the Andretti drivers and team members are very protective over internal decision-making at any level.

Herta knows he has to go and put a few wins on the board if he’s going to catch Palou, as he needs to outscore him by 17.63 points per race if he’s to challenge for the championship.

Winning at what has almost become a bogey track, in terms of the races at least, would be a great way to continue his momentum and trend forward towards where we all expect Herta to be.

“We obviously have the speed, and we just need to put together some race weekends as a whole,” he said after taking pole.

“Hopefully we can do that. Obviously it’s been a struggle to do that pretty much all year.

“It’s pretty frustrating to be sitting here and having a best result of fourth and not really getting an opportunity at a podium.”

But on the form he’s now showing again, Herta really won’t have to wait too long – perhaps just a few more hours – for that podium return to come.

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