IndyCar: Herta focused on building future with Chaves before expanding

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Each of the last three seasons, Bryan Herta has entered the year with a different driver or engine than he did at the previous season opener.

And 2015 is no different. But ideally for the single-car Bryan Herta Autosport team, it will be the beginning of a longer-term, more continuous relationship between team and driver.

Alex Tagliani drove a Lotus powerplant for BHA for the team’s first full-time season in 2012. A year later, Tagliani entered with a Honda engine. Jack Hawksworth was the surprise pick to start 2014, emerging ahead of Tagliani’s replacements JR Hildebrand and Luca Filippi.

Now this year, it’s Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires champion Gabby Chaves who’s starting the year in the No. 98 Dallara-Honda, and Herta hopes this is the start of a longer period together.

“For us, it comes down to getting the best guy in our car we can get,” Herta said during Wednesday’s INDYCAR teleconference. “I’m pleased with where we ended up. I think he’s a guy we want to try to hang on to for several years to come. We want to build and grow together.”

Chaves, for his part, has been performing for the better part of three years building to this stage. The Colombian American moved back stateside after a year in GP3, and ended second in Pro Mazda in 2012 and second in Indy Lights in 2013 before emerging as champion last year.

“The relief (of signing) is only temporary,” Chaves said. “As soon as the deal is done, you have to focus on what’s next. It’s been a long journey… there has been a lot of sacrifice to get here.”

Without the $750,000 scholarship from Mazda in hand, there’s no guarantee Chaves would have been able to move up, even after two tests (second was with BHA). Chaves thanked Mazda for that, and also extolled the Mazda Road to Indy ladder, noting the number of talented drivers who are recent IndyCar graduates and on the way.

“If I’m honest, without it, it would be very hard to make a deal happen anywhere,” Chaves said. “I’m thankful that program exists. It’s not only in Indy Lights but the whole Mazda Road to Indy coming together very strong, ever since my first year in Pro Mazda in 2012. You get familiarized with tracks, the people and the whole atmosphere. It just makes my transition that much easier.

“Jack Hawksworth and Carlos Munoz have also demonstrated the quality of drivers that we’re feeding into IndyCar is very high. There’s … Zach (Veach), and you’d like to see Sage (Karam) have a ride as well. He’s a deserving champion. We want all these guys to have a ride. They’re the eventual future stars.”

As for Herta, he’s focused on Chaves solely for 2015. The team will add a second car for Jay Howard at the Indianapolis 500 – a first for the team – but chances of a second car for further races, or an Indy Lights program, are back burner items until 2016 most likely.

“We are running a second car in the speedway, which is a first for us,” Herta said. “We want to keep the focus on Gabby and do everything we can for him. We’d like to be a two-car team sooner rather than later. Maybe we run later in the year for a full two-car program next year.

“For Lights, we’re open to coming back. We wouldn’t exist wihout it. I really think the new car is a huge plus for the series. But from our standpoint, we needed to take a step back from it so we could step forward on the IndyCar program this year. Hopefully we come back to Indy Lights at some point in the future.”

Herta also praised John Dick, who he has hired as Todd Malloy’s replacement to engineer Chaves in his rookie season.

“John was with us at the Sebring test,” Herta said. “I’ve known him for many years. But I never worked with him when I was driving.

“When we were looking for the right combination… we wanted to sign a driver first, then make sure we find the people that fit him. Gabby is good with John. Frankly we wanted a lot of experience  around Gabby. He has been with IndyCar a long time, and will help Gabby as he’s learning.”