IndyCar’s rookie trio bullish for St. Pete debuts

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At least three and potentially a fourth rookie driver will be part of the Sunoco Rookie-of-the-Year class in the Verizon IndyCar Series season opener, and could play spoilers in the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

For Carlos Munoz and Jack Hawksworth, this will be their first opportunities to race the Dallara DW12-Honda on a road and street circuit in a normal weekend.

Munoz, who will drive the No. 34 Cinsay Inc./AndrettiTV.com Honda for Andretti Autosport, made a last-minute substitute appearance for Ryan Briscoe at Panther Racing in the second Toronto race a year ago. But that marked his first time ever in one of these cars on a road or street circuit, and to jump in and finish the race was all that could have realistically been achieved.

Now, though, he wants to live up to the high standards set by his trio of teammates – Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti and defending St. Pete winner James Hinchcliffe.

“St. Pete is one of the tracks I like a lot. I’ve been really fast in the past (in an Indy Lights car), but I’ve never finished in the past two years I’ve raced there. My main goal is to finish the race, take all the experience, to learn a lot,” said Munoz.

While he failed to finish last year, Hawksworth won in his Indy Lights debut with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. He was a late add to Bryan Herta Autosport’s lineup, but impressed in the Barber preseason test. He’ll drive the No. 98 BHA/BBM Honda with sponsorship from Charter Media.

“I’m really looking forward to getting the season started this weekend in St. Pete,” said Hawksworth. “It’s a track I’ve been successful at in the lower racing categories and I also lived there during the 2012 season. It’s certainly an event that I enjoy a lot.

“Coming into the race weekend, we have had a couple of solid tests and I think we should be in pretty good shape to start the season. The track is quite short – low grip but still technical. We’ll have to work hard and execute a clean weekend but if we can do this, then we’ll be in with a shout.”

Team owner Bryan Herta added, “The season is finally here and the hard work from the guys in the shop, our partners at Honda, and our driver Jack Hawksworth are ready to be put to the test. With substantial support from Charter, we are looking forward to a strong weekend.”

Schmidt has a rookie of his own in one of his IndyCars – Russian Mikhail Aleshin makes his series debut in the No. 7 SMP Racing Honda. Accomplishing what Tristan Vautier did last year – making the Firestone Fast Six on debut – is not an easy ask, but Aleshin already knows what he wants to get out of the weekend.

“Before we even get there, we want to know what changes we are going to make in the car,” Aleshin said. “I’ve been practicing in the simulator at our shop and watching lots of tape. Everyone else will have more experience than me at this track, so I need to do my best to create less opportunity for error.”

He also joked on the irony of being a Russian to make his debut in St. Petersburg.

“It’s very exciting to have our country represented in IndyCar for the first time ever,” Aleshin said. “The name St. Petersburg will also be very recognizable to Russian fans since it’s also the name of one of our most famous cities. It’s funny that they’ll be tuning in to watch me race at a different St. Petersburg in the U.S. It all fits together very well!”

A fourth rookie – Carlos Huertas in the second Dale Coyne Racing entry – has not been officially confirmed by the team. But it’s expected the Colombian rookie will be in the No. 18 Honda this weekend.

MRTI: Herta standing tall, riding wave of momentum in Indy Lights

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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It would be hard to top the month of May that Colton Herta is coming off of.

The 18-year-old, now in his second year competing in the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, enjoyed a sweep of the three Indy Lights races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, winning both events on the IMS Road Course – charging through the field to do so (he fell back as far as sixth and fourth between Race 1 and Race 2) – and outdueling Andretti Autosport stablemates Pato O’Ward and Dalton Kellett to win a frantic Freedom 100.

In short, it was a near perfect month for the young Herta.

“It’s super special to win in Indy and to get do the triple there at a place that’s so nostalgic, it’s a pretty cool feeling,” Herta told NBC Sports about his Indy success.

And all three were thrilling drives in which Herta spent the entire time battling with rivals – Santi Urrutia on the IMS Road Course, and the aforementioned O’Ward and Kellett, and Urrutia as well, in the Freedom 100.

Colton Herta edged Pato O’Ward to win the Freedom 100. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Herta is no stranger to winning – he won twice in 2017 (Race 2 at St. Petersburg and Race 2 at Barber Motorsports Park) – both times in dominant fashion.

As he explained, it isn’t necessarily more challenging to dominate a race versus battling rivals the entire way, but different mindsets are required to survive each.

“It’s a different skill set,” he asserted. “Obviously when you start up front, there’s a lot more pressure to perform, so it’s more about managing the gap to the guys behind. Whereas you’re not as nervous when you’re in the back of the pack, because you can’t go any further back. So there’s less nerves going into the race. And it’s more about attacking the whole time and taking a little more risk.”

In discussing his Indy victories more, Herta detailed that outdueling opponents in intense duels – like the ones at Indy – comes down to thoroughly analyzing one’s opponents and making aggressive, yet smart passes.

“You can see what the guys are doing ahead of you, and obviously if you follow them for a lap or two you can see where they’re struggling and you can make up ground on them,” he explained. “And that’s the biggest thing: going for an overtake that you can make – especially when you’re in the running for a championship fight like this – going for an overtake that you know you can make without taking a massive risk, and kind of seeing the tendencies of the car in front of you and where they’re struggling and when you’re making up time.”

Herta’s run of recent success comes as more evidence of a driver who appears to be more polished than he was last year. While blisteringly fast – Herta captured seven poles in 2017 – there were also a number of errors that kept him from making a more serious championship challenge.

Though Herta began 2018 with a somewhat ominous crash in Race 2 at St. Pete, the rest of his season has been much cleaner. He finished third in Race 1 at St. Pete and second and third at Barber Motorsports Park before his run of victories at IMS.

Still, despite the appearance of a more polished driver, Herta explained that his approach is no different than it was in 2017.

“Not much has changed,” he asserted. “The mindset obviously is still the same because, especially with a (seven car field), you need to win races and you need to win quite a few of them to win the championship. (Staying out of trouble is about) just kind of settling in and knowing that a second or third place, or even a fourth or fifth place, isn’t terrible to take every now and then.”

And because the field in Indy Lights is small this year – only seven cars are entered at Road America – Herta revealed that maintaining a hard-charging style and going for race wins is paramount, in that the small fields make it harder to gap competitors in the title hunt.

“It’s hard to create a gap. On a bad day, you’re still going to be closer (to the guys ahead of you). Like Pato O’Ward in Indy (on the road course) had an awful weekend and finished in the back in both races (fourth and seventh), but I’m only at a (six point) lead. It’s tough to get ahead, so you want to minimize mistakes. It’s tough to make a gap, but it’s also tough to fall behind.”

As such, Herta is most certainly focused on bringing home an Indy Lights crown in 2018, which would propel him into the Verizon IndyCar Series, but he isn’t putting undue pressure on himself to force it to happen.

“In the second year, you have to get it done, and it’s tough to move up to IndyCars without that $1 million scholarship. So yeah, it’s important, but there’s no need to put more pressure on myself for how it is. I just got to keep doing what I’m doing, keep my head down, and if we can replicate what happened in May more and more, we should be in IndyCar next year,” he detailed.

And a potential move to IndyCar is certainly on the minds of Herta and Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing, even if the Indy Lights title ends up in the hands of someone else.

“We are thinking about it for sure, and we have some sponsors already committed on this year that I think we could bring up into IndyCar,” Herta revealed. “But, if we win the Indy Lights championship, we’re going to race (IndyCar), whether it’s the four races that we’re given or whatever it may be.”

Herta will look to improve upon his results from last year at Road America, when he finished 12th in Race 1 and third in Race 2.

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