Getty Images

Herta, Andretti continue ‘natural evolution’ of partnership into 2017

Leave a comment

A year ago, Bryan Herta faced a quandary and a fork in the road.

A sponsor had pulled out, leaving the likable team owner and past driver needing a way to continue into the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series season at the eleventh hour.

You should know the story from there. Herta and Michael Andretti struck a deal where the Bryan Herta Autosport team melded with the Andretti Autosport operation as the fourth Andretti entry for 2016. Alexander Rossi replaced Gabby Chaves as driver although the rest of the BHA crew shifted over unchanged.

Rossi promptly won the 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil thanks in large part to Herta’s strategic gamble but Rossi’s own maturity beyond his years, while Chaves endured a nightmare season racing only part-time.

It’s natural to wonder where Herta might be now if the last-minute deal didn’t happen. Luckily, there was never a question that the Herta-Andretti partnership would continue into a second year, and as Herta explained, the melding is such that there’s not a divide of “BHA” and “Andretti Autosport” within the overall unit.

“I think it’s kind of cool how it’s evolved. A year ago this was all fresh,” Herta told NBC Sports. “Indy 500 aside was a great thing on its own, but overall it’s worked well for us and for his team. This was a natural evolution.

“You had the 98 car… and it was my original guys that came over on the car. Now the idea was, let’s do this for a year. At end of the year, really, we’d talk about how to continue it. We achieved the objective and didn’t need to go our own way again. We want to continue it.

“This year is a more thorough integration. It’s not the ’98 guys’ and ‘Andretti guys.’ There’s a mix; the BHA guys are mixed to different cars. I have a role in Marco (Andretti’s) car. It’s back to one team. The 98 yes, falls under the BHA entry, but really now we’re all in with Andretti Autosport.”

And that is the funny part of the year ahead. While Rossi’s No. 98 NAPA AUTO PARTS Honda is still the Andretti-Herta Autosport entered car, Herta himself shifts to the strategist box for Marco Andretti, in an attempt to help bring the No. 27 hhgregg Honda’s performance – and results – forward. This also allows Michael Andretti to step off the box and be free to go to his other race team events, if needed, for conflict weekends.

MONTEREY, CA - OCTOBER 19:  Bryan Herta driver of the #26 Andretti Green Racing XM Satellite Radio Acura ARX-01a during practice for the American Le Mans Series Monterey Sports Car Championships at Laguna Seca Raceway on October 19, 2007 in Monterey, California.  (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
MONTEREY, CA – OCTOBER 19: Bryan Herta during practice for the ALMS race at Laguna Seca Raceway in 2007. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

The relationship between Herta and Marco Andretti is a really intriguing one. Herta and Michael Andretti raced together first as rivals, then as teammates between 1994 and 2007. Marco Andretti’s debut in 2006 coincided with Herta’s last full-time year as a driver in IndyCar, before he shifted to Michael Andretti’s Acura LMP2 sports car program in 2007 (right).

Yet Herta can see both the father side (his son Colton, races for Andretti’s Indy Lights team in 2017) and the teammate side of Marco. He knows the talent is there, but it’s been inconsistent on whether it’s fully shone through or not.

“He’s got a really capable group of guys over there,” Herta explained. “Me moving over was just a case of freshening some things up. Also with Michael recognizing… given his role as a team owner in multiple championships, he’s better off, not handcuffed, but not being stuck in any particular place. Say he might be needed at FE, GRC, or here. This frees him up to be wherever he’s needed.

“The second point is the father-son dynamic is difficult. They’re both very similar and passionate. So it was, let’s try something different. Marco was up for it. I was up for it. I have known Marco since he was a kid and I believe there is more than enough ability there. He has all the tools he needs.”

RICHMOND, VA - JUNE 23: Marco Andretti, (L) driver of the #26 ArcaEx Andretti Green Racing Dallara Honda, and Bryan Herta driver of the #7 XM Satellite Andretti Green Racing Dallara Honda, and Marco's engineer Eddie Jones talk during practice for the IRL IndyCar Series SunTrust Indy challenge on June 23, 2006 at Richmond International Raceway in Richmond, Virginia. (Photo by Gavin Lawrence/Getty Images)
RICHMOND, VA – JUNE 23: Marco Andretti and Bryan Herta, and Marco’s engineer Eddie Jones talk during practice for IndyCar’s 2006 race at Richmond. (Photo by Gavin Lawrence/Getty Images)

Marco Andretti, for his part, is bullish on the move as well. “I’m really excited to be working with Bryan. Dad was great at calling races, but sometime it’s a hectic work environment, and no one wants to make mistakes. Every one of these guys is extremely talented,” he told NBC Sports in December.

Luckily for both parents, they just get to play “dad” this year at the track rather than be directly involved in their sons’ races. It’s a move that, in large part, has helped Graham Rahal develop the last two years at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, a team Herta used to race for. With Bobby Rahal off the box and Rico Nault stepping in, the younger Rahal has achieved his best two seasons the last two years.

Herta still has the “dad” component as Colton, 16, comes home for 2017 after two years abroad in Europe racing for Carlin. The Andretti Steinbrenner Racing entry Colton will drive for in Indy Lights matches the BHA No. 98, but features no Herta ownership involvement.

And being free to just watch the son of “Hertamania” compete is a freeing element for the senior Herta.

“It’s really nice having him home. We’ve enjoyed having him home,” he said. “On the race weekends it was hard to watch him… I only went to two races a year. I was always here.

“This year, I’m not going to watch every session. But just being here and keeping tabs on what’s going on is nice. I don’t have a role in Indy Lights program.

“For me, if I walk over there, it’s just me being dad. I’m not there to work.”

But work is something the senior Herta has done a good job of as one of IndyCar’s newest – and youngest – team owners at just 46 years old. He’s still got his own team name active as well, as the Bryan Herta Rallysport team continues into 2017 with new driver Cabot Bigham, who steps up to Supercars after winning the GRC Lites title.

The IndyCar season starts on March 12 at St. Petersburg and resumes on NBCSN on April 9 in Long Beach, while GRC kicks off at Memphis April 28-29, also on the NBC Sports Group networks.

Schmidt Peterson aiming high with Hinchcliffe, Wickens

Photo: IndyCar
Leave a comment

The new Schmidt Peterson Motorsports duo of James Hinchcliffe and Robert Wickens expressed a high amount of confidence during Wednesday’s confirmation of Hinchcliffe’s return and Wickens’ signing, as the pair looks to return the Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson co-owned team to prominent status within the Verizon IndyCar Series.

“We’re hoping to give Toronto and Ontario and Canadian sports fans in general something to cheer about over the next season,” Hinchcliffe quipped during a teleconference on Wednesday.

Granted, there are likely to be several challenges to overcome, notably for Wickens, who returns to single-seater competition for the first time since 2011, when he was a champion of the Formula Renault 3.5 series and served as test driver for the now defunct Manor Racing (then known as Marussia Virgin Racing).

Having spent every year since then in DTM, where he won a total of six races and finished as high as fourth in the championship (2016), Wickens knows returning to open wheel competition will be an adjustment. However, he explained that the history of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, specifically its Indy Lights history, speaks to their ability to help a driver adapt, and he rates the program they’re putting together very highly.

“I think Schmidt Peterson Motorsports have a fantastic driver development program. They showed that in their multiple Indy Lights championships along the way. I think we will have a strong program in place. I have a feeling that the simulator will be my new best friend,” Wickens said when asked about getting reacquainted with an open-wheel car.

Of course, having an experienced teammate like Hinchcliffe to lean on will undoubtedly help the transition, something Wickens readily admitted.

“I’m very fortunate that I have James as my teammate because he’s so experienced, I can learn off him. Because we already have such a good off-track relationship, I feel like you can just take his word, trust him, kind of move forward with it,” he revealed.

They’ve been teammates before, both in karting where they first met in 2001, and then in the now-defunct A1 Grand Prix series in 2007-2008, a series that pitted nations against each other in spec open-wheel cars. Funnily, that A1GP type of vibe returns as Schmidt Peterson Motorsports now has that with its “Team Canada” mantra while all four of Andretti Autosport’s full-season drivers are American.

For Hinchcliffe, Wickens’ background, even if it hasn’t been in the single-seater realm since 2011, was a big selling point in adding him to the team.

“In Robby, we have a proven winner at a very high level. The level of technical expertise that he comes with from his time in DTM is very impressive,” he said of Wickens’ technical background.

Hinchcliffe added that Wickens’ ability to analyze the car and its setup was evidenced in two outings: one at Sebing International Raceway in March, in part of a “ride swap” between the two longtime friends, and a second at Road America, when he subbed on Friday practice for Mikhail Aleshin.

Wickens sampled Hinchcliffe’s No. 5 Arrow Electronics Honda earlier this year. Photo: IndyCar

Hinchcliffe revealed that Wickens’ feedback to the team and his ability to quickly adapt to the chassis took everyone somewhat by surprise.

“We did our ride swap. He had two hours in the car, hardly anything even resembling a test day, and his performance was pretty impressive. No doubt the time in Road America helped because that really gave us a better sense of his technical feedback, integrated with the team a little bit more. Everybody was happy to work with him on that day,” said Hinchcliffe.

Further still, Hinchcliffe is firm in his belief that the 2018 aero kit and its reduction in aerodynamic downforce will fall right into Wickens’ wheelhouse, based on Hinchcliffe’s own take after sampling Wickens’ DTM Mercedes earlier this year.

“In all honesty, I was saying earlier today, the 2018 car is probably better suited for him than the 2017 car because of the experience he’s had the last handful of series,” Hinchcliffe asserted.

“The (aero kit) was such high downforce, it would be a big change coming out of DTM. But with the loss of downforce that we’ve seen, the car is moving around a little bit more, brake zones, things like that, it won’t be as big a transition I think. Just based on the experience that I got in our ride swap, I think he’s going to adapt very quickly, be comfortable very quickly, and as a result be competitive very quickly. So it’s going to be exciting.”

As for expectations heading into next year, team co-owner Schmidt did not mince words and expects the team’s performance to resemble what they did in 2012, 2013, and 2014, when they won a total of four races (with driver Simon Pagenaud) and finished in the top five in the championship each year.

“We had a stint in ’12, ’13, ’14 where we finished fifth in the points (or better. I think we want to get back to that level of competition,” Schmidt added. “We felt like we were missing things in having two cars with equal funding and equal drivers and equal capabilities. We think this gets back there.”

Follow @KyleMLavigne