A DIFFERENT WORLD
A mollywhopping. An ass kicking. A virtuoso performance. Whatever you want to call it, most professional drivers are fortunate to have one defining performance throughout their careers. Colton Herta has done it twice by the age of 21.
The first came at the close of his rookie season in 2019 at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca where he took pole and owned the field, leading 83 of 90 laps in a showy demonstration of what the future held. And he’s done it again, this time at St. Petersburg where he demolished everyone in qualifying – finding a staggering advantage of 0.2499s around the short 1.8-mile street circuit – and followed it up by decimating the opposition by leading 97 out of 100 laps.
Think of all the drivers who will retire without knowing this feeling, then remember Herta has two, and just reached the legal age to buy alcohol in his home state of California.
Since arriving with the Harding Steinbrenner Racing in 2019 as an Andretti Autosport affiliate driver, he’s won four races. And in another nod to his ridiculousness, Herta’s become Andretti’s winningest driver over that time span. From 2019-2021, teammate Alexander Rossi has two wins, and other than that, everyone else past and present over that stretch – Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti, James Hinchcliffe, Zach Veach, and Conor Daly – have zero.
And after having been the only Andretti driver to defy the inconsistencies that plagued his teammates in 2020 and going on to secure securing third in the championship, he’s now managed to overcome his terrible open to 2021 at Barber, where he was taken out at the start by Josef Newgarden. By winning at St. Pete, he’s vaulted to P4 in the standings. His next-closest teammate in the championship? Rossi in P16.
There are plenty of extenuating circumstances to explain why Rossi, RHR, and Hinchcliffe aren’t at fault for their punishing starts to 2021, so there’s nothing critical to offer in that regard. But the person tabulating championship points doesn’t care about drivers’ problems. Andretti Autosport’s drivers are P4, P16, P20, and P21 entering the month of May, and while the bottom three will surely respond and move up the rankings, it’s hard to ignore how the inter-team fortunes continue to diverge.
It leaves me to ask: Has Colton Herta taken another step forward with his game? There’s no doubt he’s become the team leader on road and street courses; the results tell that tale. We should have a better grasp on the overarching question about Herta’s ascendance by Sunday night after he’s been through the Texas Motor Speedway doubleheader. That first oval win is the only accolade he’s missing. And if things go well for him around the 1.5-mile oval, a proper fight for the title is on.
Turns out that Herta isn’t too bad at this IndyCar caper. Galstad/Motorsport Images
NOD TO NATHAN
Race engineer Nathan O’Rourke has been with Herta for all of his IndyCar wins, and years before their partnership began, he worked with another Road To Indy phenom in Josef Newgarden during the Tennessean’s first two seasons with Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing.
Of the many talents found within a race engineer, the ability to connect with young newcomers to IndyCar is a skill that few possess. Yet O’Rourke has formed special bonds with one who’s gone on to win two championships with Team Penske, and it feels safe to say he’s on the path to earning one or more with Herta.
It was also O’Rourke who watched his current driver out-duel his former driver on Sunday. While there were opportunities for the Penske pilot to attempt high-risk passes for the lead, there was trust that Newgarden would race with care, and that’s exactly what he did on the way to P2. Cool to see O’Rourke’s influence born out in the most positive ways with Colton and Josef.
HIGHS AND LOWS
What a weird weekend for Arrow McLaren SP. The team that looked unbeatable before its first pit stop at Barber felt the whiplash of plummeting fortunes, as it was largely anonymous at St. Pete. Pato O’Ward made it into the Firestone Fast Six in P6, but sank like a rock on the opening lap, and the situation only worsened as the lap count grew.
Getting tangled in a late incident between Ed Jones and James Hinchcliffe was the lowlight of the race for O’Ward, who pitted for repairs on the way to P19. The more curious case within AMSP is Felix Rosenqvist, who earned a podium at St. Pete on his series debut in 2019, but lacked pace from the moment cars hit the track on Friday. Qualifying 17th, the race-winning Swede improved to 12th by the finish, but with the rough opening-lap drama at Barber that ruined his day, and a distant run on Sunday, he’s in thoroughly unfamiliar territory: 18th in the championship.
I swear Chip Ganassi Racing’s Alex Palou turned up at St. Pete, participated in every session and competed in the race, but man alive, send out a search party because the Barber winner was missing in action on Sunday. These things happen, obviously, but I’m struggling to recall a recent example where a first-time race winner completely disappeared at the next race. Starting P10, he finished P17 which, considering the heights produced seven days prior, came as a shock.
Palou seemed a little lost at St Pete, but it didn’t hurt his championship position. Cantrell/Motorsport Images
I’m not sure if I’ve ever given it to a team that won the race, but when it comes to crappy days where half of its drivers are clobbered by over-optimistic passing attempts that result in flat tires, Ye Olde Anvil chose Andretti Autosport as its best friend in Florida.
CHICKEN SALAD REPORT
Who made the most from a forgettable qualifying performance? Could it be anyone other than Will Power, who hauled the No. 12 Chevy from 20th to eighth and maintained second in the championship while doing so? Quality work in the pits, sharp strategy calls, and a lot of dogged passes by the guy who rewarded Penske’s faith after being signed to his umpteenth contract extension by The Captain.
THE 11.76% DONE UPDATE
With two out of 17 races complete, here’s a look at the championship standings after St. Petersburg.
Alex Palou’s Barber ‘appearing act’ and subsequent disappearing act at St. Pete carved into his lead, but finishing P14 on Sunday wasn’t enough to knock him out of first overall. The poor result did, however, take a 12-point lead and cut it down to two as he sits with 67 points to the 65 shared by Scott Dixon and Will Power. Colton Herta leapt from 22nd to fourth with his win (62 points), and Simon Pagenaud holds fifth (54).
Behind them, the trio of Jack Harvey, Sebastien Bourdais, and Rinus VeeKay lay claim to a tie (51) with Marcus Ericsson in ninth (50) and Josef Newgarden, another Barber driver with a hole to climb out of, in 10th (47).
Just as one good weekend did wonders for the likes of Herta and Newgarden, one bad weekend had the opposite effect for O’Ward, who fell from fourth to 11th (45). Alexander Rossi was another driver headed in the wrong direction after the clash with Graham Rahal. Who’d have predicted Rossi would trail a pair of rookies in Romain Grosjean in 14th (37) and Scott McLaughlin in 15th (35) entering Texas in P16 (31)?