Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Indy Lights: Herta, Steinbrenner look to build on 2017 season

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The 2017 Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires season started out with a bang for Colton Herta and George Michael Steinbrenner IV in their No. 98 Dallara IL-15 Mazda entered under the Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing banner. In their first weekend together, at the season-opener on the streets of St. Petersburg, Herta and Steinbrenner asserted themselves as forces within the field by finishing second in race one and winning race two.

It was an authoritative debut for for driver and team owner, one that made a lasting impact on the latter, as Steinbrenner grew up in the area and considers it his home town.

“That was definitely the moment that stood out,” said Steinbrenner of their debut in a piece on “It was so unexpected to win so early and, to get it in what is essentially my hometown race in St. Pete, it was something special. It’s a race that I’ve gone to for the past 10 years or so, so it was really something special for me.”

From there, however, the year became defined by the phrase “feast of famine.” At Barber Motorsports Park, Herta finished tenth in race one after getting together with Kyle Kaiser in Turn 1 and damaged his front wing, though he rebounded to win race two – the 400th race in Indy Lights history since 1986, well before either Herta or Steinbrenner was born!

However, a pair of mechanical issues relegated Herta to finishes of 12th and tenth at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, and he crashed out of the Freedom 100 on Lap 1 with teammate Ryan Norman, leaving him 13th.

Race one at Road America wasn’t much better as he finished 12th, though he ended up third in race two and and back-to-back fourth-place finishes at Iowa and Toronto (race one). However, race two at Toronto saw him suffer suspension damaged after wall contact while leading, leaving him tenth again at the checkered flag.

The final four races of the year saw more consistency, however, as he finished second and sixth at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, third at Gateway Motorsports Park, and third at Watkins Glen.

All told, it amounted to nine finishes of sixth or better (including two wins and four additional podiums), but sixth finishes of 10th or worse, leaving him third in the championship at season’s end.

Herta, who is still only 17 years old, describes the year as a success and on in which he grew a lot.

“A year of learning. I think we exceeded our expectations. We were third in the championship, so I’ve been third the last three years!” quipped Herta, who finished third in the F4 British Championship (2015) and the Euroformula Open Championship (2016) in the two previous seasons.

What’s more, he took the heat for any mistakes this, asserting that the Andretti-Steinbrenner team gave him everything he could’ve asked for. And their speed together was evidenced in qualifying, as took seven poles in his rookie Indy Lights season, one shy of a single season record held by several drivers – including his dad Bryan.

“I never doubted what the car was doing,” Herta described. “A lot of the things that happened, some was in my hands – crashing vs. getting taken out – but the team was perfect all year. So I can’t blame them. The car was always good. Doug (Zister, engineer) knows what he’s doing.”

Colton Herta and Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing showed a lot of speed in 2017 and took two race wins. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography.

And while there isn’t much he would do differently, Herta did acknowledge he needs to settle down and a little and better harness the raw speed he possess. “We had a lot of speed. I need to settle down more in races,” he said of his development.

Steinbrenner, who at 21 years old is quite young himself, expressed similar sentiments and revealed that he is seeing Herta learn from his mistakes.

“He’s always had the speed, but as it is with a lot of drivers, he’s learned a lot from his mistakes,” Steinbrenner explained. “He’s matured a lot over even the past eight or nine months, since the beginning of the season. It’s good to see that and he’s grown stronger with each mistake he makes or each bad weekend we had.”

And as far future plans, Steinbrenner says Indy Lights is definitely in the cards for 2018 with an eye toward moving to the Verizon IndyCar Series in the future. The Herta and Steinbrenner partnership hasn’t been confirmed for a return yet, but it is something they both want to continue with.

“We’re planning on making the jump whenever we all think we’re ready. Whether that’s 2019, 2020, we’re not sure yet,” Steinbrenner added. “We know for sure that in 2018 we’ll be in the Indy Lights series.”

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F1 Preview: 2018 Australian Grand Prix

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Save for two occasions, in 2006, and 2010, the Australian Grand Prix has served as the season-opening event for the FIA Formula 1 World Championship since 1996, and this weekend’s event will be the 21st time that the city of Melbourne has kicked off the Formula 1 campaign.

The 2018 season is the fifth one of the current hybrid power unit era, the second season of the current aero regulations, and the second under Liberty Media’s guidance.

Last year saw titans Mercedes AMG Petronas and Scuderia Ferrari duel for supremacy for most of the season before Mercedes distanced Ferrari late in the season to take the constructor’s title and the driver’s title, with Lewis Hamilton, who is now tied with Sebastian Vettel on four world championships apiece.

Four drivers on the grid have Formula 1 world championships to their name: Hamilton, Vettel, Kimi Raikkonen, and Fernando Alonso. Scuderia Toro Rosso’s Brendon Hartley also has a world championship to his name as a two-time titlist in the FIA World Endurance Championship.

So, what can viewers expect from the 2018 curtain-raiser in Australia? A handful of things to watch are below?

2018 Australian Grand Prix – Talking Points

Does Anyone Have Anything for Mercedes?

Only on one day during pre-season testing did a Mercedes driver lead the way – Lewis Hamilton was fastest on the final day of Week 1 at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya.

However, all indications were that was by design, with the team focusing the majority of the second week, if not the entire second week, on long runs with their W09 EQ Power+ chassis.

Such a decision is an ominous one, in that it indicates the team is very comfortable with the amount of speed in the car and did not see a need, or desire, to show their hand during testing.

With that in mind, the Mercedes duo of Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas may yet again have the best and fastest cars, and the team looks poised to potentially make it five constructor’s and driver’s championships in a row.

Ferrari and Red Bull Look to End Mercedes Reign

The biggest threats to Mercedes are undoubtedly Ferrari and Red Bull, the only other teams to win in 2017.

And both teams displayed a lot of pace during testing, particularly in the “one-lap speed” category. Ricciardo set a lap record around the Catalunya circuit during the second week, only for Vettel to supplant that mark later in the week. Teammate Kimi Raikkonen led the way during the final day of testing.

It is unknown how that pace will translate over the course of a race distance. Mercedes appeared to have an edge on both Ferrari and Red Bull over long runs and race simulations, but there is also a theory that neither Ferrari nor Red Bull had their true long-run form on display.

Still, if a team is going to knock off Mercedes, it will likely be either Ferrari or Red Bull.

McLaren on the Rebound?

Put simply, the previous three seasons for McLaren F1 Team were a bit of a disaster. Their partnership with Honda yielded point totals of 27 (2015), 76 (2016), and 30 (2017) in a three-year venture that was defined by poor reliability and underwhelming power.

The relationship hit a boiling point last year and both entities parted ways ahead of the 2018 season, with McLaren signing a new power unit deal with Renault.

Testing went better than in previous years, though the team continued to battle reliability problems. However, all issues appeared to be minor, needling issues rather than more significant, foundational problems, as the other Renault teams (Red Bull and Renault Sport F1 Team) had solid runs with few reliability issues.

The car does appear to have speed in it, so if the reliability problems are behind them, McLaren could be in for a rebound season.

Stuck in the Midfield Again

Formula 1’s battle amongst the midfield is set to be as fierce as ever as a host of a several teams have a chance at being “best of the rest.”

Sahara Force India has been the frontrunner from the the midfield teams each of the last two years, finishing fourth in the constructor’s title in both 2016 and 2017, though if the steady conflict between drivers Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez continues through 2018, it could hamper their efforts significantly.

Renault Sport F1 Team and Haas F1 Team look to improve on their 2017 form, while Toro Rosso is in a new partnership with Honda power units…and has experienced a surprisingly smooth pre-season as Honda’s 2018 platform looks significantly better, with the team enjoying a solid run of testing with few, if any, reliability problems.

Williams Martini Racing and Alfa Romeo Sauber appear to be at the back of the pack entering the season, but both could battle for points finishes if those ahead of them falter.