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

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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.

Ricciardo downbeat after disaster Australian GP ends in retirement

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Daniel Ricciardo was left downbeat after a disastrous end to a difficult Australian Grand Prix weekend that saw the home Formula 1 favorite almost miss the race entirely.

Ricciardo was due to start the race 10th after crashing out of qualifying on Saturday, and was then handed a five-place grid penalty following a gearbox change overnight.

Ricciardo then suffered another setback when an electrical issue emerged during his reconnaissance lap to the grid, causing his car to get stuck in sixth gear.

After coming back to the pit lane in a truck, the RB13 car was revived by the Red Bull crew to allow Ricciardo to enter the race, albeit two laps down, making the event a glorified test session.

Ricciardo showed good pace, but was eventually forced to retire when an engine issue emerged on his car just after half distance, marking a sour end to his home race weekend.

“I’m just over it at the moment. It’s one of those days, tomorrow I’ll be fine,” Ricciardo told NBCSN after the session.

“It snowballed from yesterday. The out lap had problems, then I thought the race was done. We got out a few laps down. Good to get out and learn more. Then I had another issue, fuel pressure or something. Let’s go to China and have a better one there.”

Red Bull teammate Max Verstappen ended up fifth, with Ricciardo taking some heart from the result despite his own setbacks.

“I learned quite a bit with the car,” Ricciardo said. “I was behind a few slower cars. There’s other strengths and weaknesses. Max’s pace looked good at the moment.

“I’ll be alright when I wake up tomorrow. It’s been a long week.

“I feel like crap, it’s not how we’d like the opener to go at home.”

Alonso: Poor Australia display ‘a problem for McLaren, not me’

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Fernando Alonso believes his performance in Sunday’s Formula 1 season-opener in Australia was one of the best of his career, despite only being in contention for 10th place when he was forced to retire.

Alonso and McLaren arrived in Melbourne off the back of a torrid pre-season that had seen the Honda power unit present a number of problems, limiting the team’s running.

McLaren’s expectations for the Australian Grand Prix were low, making Alonso’s charge to 13th in qualifying an impressive one.

The Spaniard made a good start to move into the top 10 early on, and was in the running for points until a suspension issued forced him to retire with six laps remaining.

“The race was good, one of my best races driving like that,” Alonso told NBCSN after the race.

“The car’s uncompetitive and to be close for a point was a nice surprise. Good fuel saving as well. I was surprised to stay in the points. Suspension stopped us from getting this point.”

Alonso then delivered another scathing comment to McLaren, saying that his uncompetitive display was not his problem as he was driving at the peak of his powers.

“I feel very well prepared, driving at the best of my career, and I’m fighting for one point. That’s disappointing and frustrating,” Alonso said.

“But so long as I’m driving at my best, it’s a problem for the team, not me.”

Ferrari outplays Mercedes as Vettel takes Australian GP victory

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Sebastian Vettel kick-started Ferrari’s 2017 Formula 1 season in style as a strategic stunner allowed him to jump Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton and storm to victory in the Australian Grand Prix.

Vettel and Ferrari arrived in Melbourne as favorites for victory following a hugely impressive pre-season, only for Hamilton to dominate practice and take pole, suggesting Mercedes’ recent pace advantage still remained.

Hamilton led the early part of the race, but was unable to shake off Vettel, with the German staying close enough to give Ferrari the chance to get ahead through a brilliant strategy call.

The decision to chase the ‘overcut’, combined with Hamilton hitting traffic, saw Vettel snatch the lead through the tire changes and then dominate proceedings accordingly.

It was a display reminiscent of Vettel’s Red Bull heyday, and marked his first win in Australia since 2011. It was Ferrari’s first at Albert Park since Kimi Raikkonen’s success in 2007. In both instances, the winner in Australia went on to win the world championship.

Hamilton managed to make a clean getaway from pole and retain the lead at the first corner, with Vettel staying in close company through the early part of the race, immediately creating a strategy headache for the defending champion team. Hamilton managed to eke out a lead over Vettel, raising the gap to two seconds in the opening stint, but it was still nowhere near enough to give Mercedes any kind of comfort.

Vettel ramped up the pressure as the first round of pit stops neared, cutting the gap to Hamilton to less than one second. Hamilton reacted by diving into the pits, preventing Vettel from getting close, with his switch to the soft tire ensuring he didn’t need to make another stop. Ferrari didn’t bring Vettel in immediately, instead keeping the German out. With Valtteri Bottas 11 seconds behind in P2, Ferrari had the chance to roll the dice and keep Vettel out.

The race moved in the Scuderia’s favor when Hamilton came onto the back of Max Verstappen, who was running fourth, and found himself struggling to pass. Mercedes told Hamilton over the radio that it was “race critical” and he had to pass, yet with his tires already struggling, the three-time champion was haemorrhaging time to Vettel.

Ferrari brought Vettel in at the end of Lap 23, releasing him into clean air after coming across a number of backmarkers. A swift turnaround from the Italian marque’s pit crew allowed Vettel to emerge from the pits ahead of both Verstappen and Hamilton, handing him the net lead. Hamilton vented his frustration over the radio as he kept struggling behind Verstappen, with Vettel immediately breaking free. By the time Verstappen finally stopped at the end of Lap 25, Vettel was already six seconds clear of Hamilton.

Mercedes told Hamilton that it was considering a switch to ‘plan B’ on strategy, with the Briton still struggling to match Vettel’s pace at the front. To make matters worse, Bottas was beginning to close up behind, moving to within three seconds of his esteemed teammate in the race for second.

As Vettel extended his lead at the front, former teammate Daniel Ricciardo saw his weekend come to an unceremonious end as he retired a little over half distance. Having barely made the start following an electrical issue pre-race, the Australian’s home event became a glorified test session, but an engine problem meant it came to a premature end.

Hamilton looked to steady the ship in his No. 44 Mercedes, cutting the gap to Vettel to less than nine seconds, but it proved fruitless. Vettel was able to remain cool and keep up an impressive pace to the very end, crossing the line with an 9.9 second buffer to record victory in Australia for the second time.

Hamilton managed to keep ahead of Bottas in second, leaving the Finn to take a solid podium finish on his Mercedes debut. Kimi Raikkonen ended up fourth in the second Ferrari, finishing over 20 seconds adrift of his teammate, while Max Verstappen’s decision to change strategy mid-race failed to give him anything more than fifth.

WHO HAD A GOOD RACE: Ferrari’s pit wall perfected Vettel’s strategy, something it has failed to do in recent years. Bottas had a very strong Mercedes debut, finishing third. Felipe Massa came home sixth on his comeback race. Sergio Perez did well to take seventh for Force India, with teammate Esteban Ocon taking his first F1 point in P10. Toro Rosso pair Carlos Sainz Jr. and Daniil Kvyat both ended in the points, P8 and P9 respectively. Antonio Giovinazzi impressed on debut to finish 12th for Sauber.

WHO HAD A BAD RACE: Mercedes looked unable to answer Ferrari’s pace, with Hamilton seeming uncomfortable in the Mercedes W08. Raikkonen and Verstappen both had quiet races, ending up P4 and P5. Renault missed out on points with Nico Hulkenberg finishing 11th, while Jolyon Palmer retired early after a miserable weekend. McLaren’s pre-season struggles continued as engine issues forced Fernando Alonso to retire and left Stoffel Vandoorne P13, two laps down. Romain Grosjean retired on Lap 15 with an engine issue, with smoke pouring out of the back of his car; the Frenchman had been running P7, marking a big opportunity missed for Haas. Ricciardo had a horrible home race with his engine failure.

NOTABLE: Vettel’s win over Hamilton could act as a nice foreshadowing for the title battle to come. We’re yet to see Vettel and Hamilton go head to head in a straight title battle, but this could be the year. Vettel now has four wins for Ferrari, but this could be the most significant: the last time both he (2011) and Ferrari (2007) won in Australia, they went on to win the title.

QUOTABLE: ” I feel very well prepared, driving at the best of my career, and I’m fighting for one point. That’s disappointing and frustrating. But so long as I’m driving at my best, it’s a problem for the team… not me.” – Fernando Alonso to NBCSN after his retirement.

RESULTS

WATCH LIVE: Australian GP on NBCSN, NBC Sports app from 12am ET

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The new Formula 1 season kicks off this Sunday with the Australian Grand Prix (live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 12am ET) as a new era for the sport gets underway.

New rules, new drivers and even a new owner of the series all adds up to make 2017 a season of change, with the established status quo in recent years set to be challenged.

Mercedes faced a stringent test from Ferrari in qualifying on Saturday, but it was Lewis Hamilton who once again took pole position after fending off Sebastian Vettel in the final Q3 shootout.

It may have been a familiar result, being Mercedes’ 16th-straight pole, yet the stage is set for a closer fight on Sunday, with a number of storylines due to play out up and down the grid.

You can watch the Australian Grand Prix live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 12am ET. CLICK HERE to watch via live stream.

You can also try out a new ‘Mosaic View’ for the race that includes the race simulcast, in-car cameras, driver tracker and pit lane cam. CLICK HERE to watch the Mosaic View live stream.

Leigh Diffey, David Hobbs and Steve Matchett will be on the call, with pit reporter Will Buxton on the ground at Albert Park providing updates and interviews throughout the race.

Also be sure to follow the @F1onNBCSports Twitter account for live updates throughout the race.