After Spa’s missed opportunity, Williams must hit back at Monza

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With just seven races to go, the end of the 2014 Formula 1 season is closer than you might think. It has been a sensational year so far, and with Lewis and Nico set to go toe-to-toe until the very last round in Abu Dhabi, the title race could be one of the closest we have ever seen.

Just behind the duelling Mercedes drivers, though, a number of interesting subplots are developing. Red Bull’s rise from off-season no-hopers to three-time race winners has been very impressive, made even more so by the fact that Daniel Ricciardo has been the man to lead the team’s charge – not Sebastian Vettel. The defending world champions look set to finish second in the constructors’.

For Ferrari and Williams though, things aren’t so certain. Both teams are pushing to finish the season in third place, and must balance this bid with the diversion of resources to next year’s campaign. It’s a common trade-off in F1: do you finish the season strongly or stand a better chance of winning next year?

As things stand, Ferrari leads Williams by ten points (160 plays 150) for P3, but you would be forgiven for expecting a reverse result following the Belgian Grand Prix. In fact, I even contemplated the idea of Williams finishing ahead of Red Bull over the summer break. However, the team missed a big opportunity at Spa which, coupled with Daniel Ricciardo’s superb win, appears to leave that thesis dead in the water.

Williams’ big strength comes on the straights thanks to the grunt of the Mercedes engine and the design of the FW36 car. Valtteri Bottas passed Nico Rosberg twice at Spa because of this (although he did trail the championship leader home at the flag). The track also played against Ferrari, and when Fernando Alonso began to drop back through the field, the team looked resigned to lose position in the constructors’ championship once again.

In the end, it was Kimi Raikkonen – a man many thought had given up – who came to the rescue, finishing fourth to minimize the damage of Bottas’ podium finish. Alonso brought home a small haul of points down in seventh, while Felipe Massa’s race was ruined when debris from Lewis Hamilton’s car got caught in his Williams. He limped home in 13th place. If Lewis thinks he’s been unlucky this year, he ought to see what Felipe has been contesting with!

So Williams’ net loss at Spa was three points. Considering where the team was in 2013, it is remarkable that it even has Ferrari in sight, but this does put some extra pressure on the team for the race at Monza next weekend. The circuit is the fastest on the calendar, and should be a very happy hunting ground for those with a Mercedes engine. Bottas and Massa know that they must leave Ferrari’s home turf with third place in the constructors’ tucked under their arm.

As for Ferrari? Finishing fourth would be a great shame for the team that was expected to be Mercedes’ closest rival in 2014. However, it could have even bigger implications: rumour has it that Fernando Alonso has a get-out clause in his contract if the team finishes lower than P3 in the standings. With McLaren sniffing, Ferrari has a lot to fight for if said speculation is indeed true.

Just like the fight for the drivers’ title, you can expect this battle to run until the end of the season.

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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