In his first F1 test, Colton Herta impresses McLaren team over two days at Portimao

McLaren F1 Team
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Driving a Formula One car for the first time, Colton Herta impressed the McLaren team during a two-day F1 test at the Portimao circuit in Portugal.

The Andretti Autosport NTT IndyCar Series driver completed 162 laps Monday and Tuesday in a 2021 McLaren MCL35M at the 4.653-kilometer road course where F1 raced in 2020-21. Though no lap times were provided (the team and driver both said varying conditions would have made comparison difficult), McLaren F1 Team principal Andreas Seidl said Herta excelled at adapting to a car that is faster, more powerful and an upgrade in technological sophistication over his full-time IndyCar ride.

“I have to say the team was quite impressed how Colton was dealing with all these challenges and with his professional approach,” Seidl said. “ His physical preparation was enabling him to keep going throughout the two days knowing how challenging this can be in a Formula one car on a track like Portimao. In the end, his approach allowed him to build pace gradually and confidence. And finding the right balance between taking risks and still keeping the car on track.”

Seidl said the team put Herta through the paces with race simulation runs, varying tire compounds and fuel loads and also focusing on different driving techniques.

Herta ended the test with the confidence he can be an F1 driver – and he’s hoping he left the same impression with McLaren, even though it wasn’t the initial goal of the test.

“It’s hard to get in a race car and not drive it as fast as you possibly can,” Herta said. “That was the goal of getting over here was get acclimated, get up to speed and really see what I can do in a race car. It was a lot of fun. It was super special to drive and handled beautifully. I was able to make some setup adjustments in the afternoon and get it more to my liking. You really want to impress people with how fast you can drive a race car no matter what the circumstances.

“(F1) is a goal of mine and has been for a while now. … It’s been amazing. All the engineers have been great at getting me up to speed. Which was the biggest thing. I wanted to see what these cars were all about, and luckily, McLaren was able to give me that chance.”

Said Seidl: “The team will go into data and detail to get an initial idea of the potential Colton has shown in our car. And then we’ll have quite a picture and good idea. That will be part of our evaluation as well as to what next potential steps could look like.”

It’s believed McLaren will have an open ride in 2024 with drivers Daniel Ricciardo and Lando Norris signed through at least 2023.

“As always here at McLaren, we take it step by step,” Seidl said when asked if Herta was a candidate to drive for the team in ’24. “The objective for this test was to give Colton the chance to experience a Formula One car for the first time and explore its performance. That was the focus. What comes next is something we take step by step. Take our time as well. That’s where we are.”

Herta, 22, has made no secret of his desire to race Formula One. He signed an extension last year through the 2023 season with Andretti Autosport, which intended to field him in F1 before its deal to acquire a team fell through last fall. IndyCar team owner Michael Andretti has indicated he would move Herta to F1 if his bid was successful to land an F1 team in 2024.

In March, McLaren signed Herta to its “Testing of Previous Cars” program, a new F1 regulation that allows teams practice sessions with 1-year-old cars to help evaluate potential drivers and young talent for the future.

Per F1 rules, McLaren is required to field an F1 rookie twice in Friday practice sessions. Seidl said McLaren was evaluating which rookies to use at race weekends after F1’s summer break.

Another possibility for FP1 time would be Arrow McLaren SP IndyCar driver Pato O’Ward, who tested a McLaren F1 car for the first time last year at Abu Dhabi.

Colton Herta did 162 laps and more than 750 kilometers during two days of testing a 2021 McLaren F1 car at Portimao (McLaren F1 Team).

“Further test opportunities for Pato, we are evaluating at the moment,” Seidl said. “He had a good test with us last year in Abu Dhabi. We were very happy as well with how he was preparing himself for that test and performing throughout the test. We’re happy with what both guys have shown so far.”

Herta said he was open to trying Friday practice sessions but preferred the TPC test days because “you get the whole track to yourself and all this time inside the car that obviously in 60 minutes of FP1 you wouldn’t get. It would be cool to get a taste of the 2022 cars and see how they compare to this car. I’d be up for it.”

Herta said he was most struck by the “incredible” amount of torque in an F1 car compared to IndyCar.

“That was the biggest thing for me,” he said. “The straight-line speed, the acceleration and the braking. Obviously, the cornering speeds were higher than in an Indy car, but it didn’t stick out to me as much as how impressive the acceleration and how easy it was with all this horsepower to put the throttle down.

“It is a completely different feel. The feeling you get from Indy car is way different because of the lack of power steering. So the overall kickback and smoothness of the wheel doesn’t really (compare) to what you’d get in a grand prix car. That was something to get used to, slowing down the hands, the speeds are a lot higher on the road courses. Overall it was good to get a feeling and a taste of what these things can do. I felt comfortable right away, the biggest thing was putting a corner or lap together.”

Working through aerodynamic and mechanical adjustments, the California native was impressed by the enhanced tools that F1 drivers use in the cockpit to adjust handling on the fly.

“It was pretty cool to see the balance changes, and what you could do inside the car, which was quite a bit more than what we were able to do inside the Indy car,” he said. “So it was awesome, if you have a problem in one corner, you can adjust it at the flick of a finger.

“It’s hard to say where you rank up against these guys when you’re doing a testing program like this in a year-old car. But as far as how comfortable I got, I did get really comfortable and could feel the limit. Maybe not the consistency that would come with a few more days. But I felt like I was close.”