If Colton Herta were to move to F1, Alex Palou thinks it would “be awesome for the Andretti family and name, awesome for F1 and awesome for IndyCar.”
And, of course, it also could be awesome for the reigning NTT IndyCar Series champion, too.
“It’ll be great for Herta if he can just go there, and it would be great for me if they can get Herta out of my way,” Palou told NBC Sports with a laugh. “Once they start talking about Andretti in F1, they’ll be talking about IndyCar, so it would be a win-win-win for everybody.”
Though Formula One is in America for the first time in two years with Sunday’s grand prix at the Circuit of The Americas, there will be no announcement in Austin, Texas, of Michael Andretti buying into a team or Herta practicing in an F1 car.
Also waiting in the wings could be Arrow McLaren SP driver Pato O’Ward, who will test an F1 car for McLaren Racing in the offseason (after winning a bet with team CEO Zak Brown by winning a race).
“I would cheer for Herta, 100 percent,” Palou said with a laugh. “I think he’s a great kid, and he’s an amazing driver. So yeah, go ahead and take him! Please. I would be OK with that. And if McLaren takes Pato at the same time, I’d be really, really pleased with that.”
The potential loss of Herta, 21, and O’Ward, 22, would be a blow to IndyCar’s youthful star power (which also counts Rinus VeeKay, 21, in its Gen Z nucleus), but it would be viewed as a major career move for two former Indy Lights rivals who have progressed up the ladder together.
“I’m still amazed with (Herta),” O’Ward told NBC Sports’ Leigh Diffey in an interview this week. “I’m very, very happy for him. I don’t know if (a move to F1) will happen or end up not happening. I really hope it does. I’m really pushing for him to get it because like I told everyone, we all love IndyCar. We love the racing. But Formula One is Formula One, and what Formula One can open to you as a professional, as an individual, is huge.
“Those opportunities, you have to take whenever they come at you. It’s not like you can pick and choose (and say), ‘Oh, no, let me win the championship in IndyCar first and then go.’ It’s like, mate, you can’t really choose. So you have to take it as they come. Sometimes it’s very rushed, and sometimes it’s going to play out perfectly in your favor. You never know. Or sometimes the opportunity never arises. So we’re both in a position where we just need to take it as things come to us.”
Meanwhile, Palou, 24, has no designs on leaving IndyCar, where he just became the first Spaniard to win a series championship in only his second season and his first with powerhouse Chip Ganassi Racing.
He came directly to IndyCar from racing in Japan and hadn’t dabbled in European racing as much as Herta and O’Ward. When Palou looks at the 20 available seats in F1, he sees only “maybe six to eight people” who wouldn’t prefer his situation.
“All the rest, they would trade for my seat, I’m sure,” he said. “I have a great team around me. I’m happy and love the racing. If I can try to get the second (championship), that would be even more amazing. I love America. I have my girlfriend here, and she loves America, too. So having a great life here.”
All that said, Palou also can appreciate why O’Ward and Herta would be interested in making the leap to F1.
“It’s not like I’m old, but next year, I’m going to be 25,” he said. “They are a bit younger. Pato is already on an atmosphere that is toward F1. McLaren is all about F1. He’s already on that path, he just has to have the opportunity. Herta with Andretti could be on the same team in F1.
“They always will have a seat here in IndyCar. At least I’d always give them a seat if I was a team manager. So why not try something else if you have the opportunity?”
Andretti reportedly has explored a transaction with Alfa Romeo, a midpack team with limited prospects for results. O’Ward said even if Herta’s chances for winning were diminished, “you have to take it man.
“I wouldn’t be able to sleep with myself the rest of my life if I didn’t take the opportunity that was presented to me,” he said. “Maybe it’s not with a top team, but you allow yourself to showcase yourself in order to get to a top team. So that’s what I’m telling everybody: If I was in his shoes, I would be doing the exact same thing.”
— Pato O'Ward (@PatricioOWard) October 15, 2021
O’Ward’s F1 test for McLaren will come after the F1 season finale Dec. 12 in Abu Dhabi. The Mexican driver already is well into preparations, including a trip last week to the McLaren Technology Centre in England for a seat-fitting.
“Man, it’s starting to sink in, I feel like all year,” O’Ward told Diffey. “I won the bet fairly early in the year (by winning May 2 at Texas Motor Speedway), and I feel like it just never really sunk in, but going to the MTC, doing the seat fit, all the sim work, all those things I have to learn that are completely different from IndyCar. Everything is starting to sink in, and really looking forward to it.
“I know it’s going to be pretty magical. I know it’s going to be pretty unique and special to what a Formula One car can do. They’re crazy pieces of machines that can honestly kind of bend the laws of physics in a way. It’s so impressive what they’re capable of, so yeah, we’ll see what it does to me, but I feel like I’m going to feel spoiled after that.”