Colton Herta is under consideration for rides throughout the Formula One paddock, prompting debate on the American’s ability to obtain the Super License required to compete in the global series.
The 22-year-old Californian and IndyCar star frequently has been mentioned as a candidate for a seat next season with AlphaTauri. A sticking point continues to be Herta’s lack of a Super License and speculation that F1’s governing body may consider granting Herta an exemption.
“You have to keep in mind that when we made the decision about the Super License and the points, it was to protect F1 and the drivers, to avoid having 10 drivers coming in F1 with big budgets and no results in the past and taking 50% of the grid,” Alfa Romeo team principal Fred Vasseur said Saturday. “We did it on purpose. And I think it was a good decision.”
Drivers need to accumulate 40 points to obtain a Super License based on their best three performances over the previous four seasons. Herta is expected to have just 32 points ahead of 2023, and although he can gain points by participating in F1 practice sessions, he doesn’t currently have any sessions scheduled this year even though he’s got a testing contract with McLaren.
Either way, he’s not expected to hit the 40-point mark and there’s debate on whether the International Automobile Federation (FIA) could apply force majeure to grant Herta a Super License.
“From my point of view it has nothing to do with force majeure,” Vasseur said. “Now, if the FIA wants to stop the process of the points and the Super License, that’s another story. They can do it, it’s up to them to decide if they want to stop the system. And we can survive without the system. But it’s nothing to do for me with force majeure.”
Vasseur has more information on Herta’s status than others because Michael Andretti attempted to purchase Alfa last season and put Herta in one of the seats.
“We had discussions last year with Andretti. It’s not a secret. Herta was on the table, and he was not eligible for a Super License at this stage,” Vasseur said.
At issue is that the FIA does not govern IndyCar and thus doesn’t rate it as highly as other global series – making it more difficult for IndyCar drivers to earn a Super License. The IndyCar grid currently boasts former F1 drivers Romain Grosjean, Marcus Ericsson and Alexander Rossi, whose 2015 season marked the last time an American was on the F1 grid.
Callum Ilott and Christian Lundgaard, both fighting for rookie of the year, came from the European junior ranks and Ilott was in the Ferrari pipeline.
Haas boss Guenther Steiner said he was not part of the process that designed the current rules but would be willing to listen to proposals on overhauling the licensing system.
“I don’t want to be sitting here and saying, `Oh, an IndyCar race, we know it’s as good as this.’ You cannot compare it,” Steiner said. “If we want to change the rule, let’s discuss it, you know, and then fix it for the future if you think it’s wrong. But there needs to be an agreement between the stakeholders in it.”
Steiner, who also said the team remains undecided on if it will re-sign Mick Schumacher, noted that the lack of Super License has kept Herta off of Haas’ list of prospects. The Haas team is owned by American businessman Gene Haas and run partly out of its North Carolina campus shared with its NASCAR team.
“He’s not on the list at the moment because he hasn’t got the Super License,” said Steiner, who added that Haas is considering only drivers with F1 experience. “In the moment, we look more to somebody who has been already in F1, so therefore, (Herta) didn’t make the list and he hasn’t got the Super License.”
McLaren team principal Andreas Seidl worked with Herta in July in a two-day test in Portugal in which Herta impressed in his preparation and on-track performance. It was that test that perhaps raised the level of interest in bringing him to F1, and Seidl said McLaren was open to adjusting the licensing system.
McLaren currently runs an IndyCar program that will expand to three teams next year.
“I think the IndyCar championship is a high quality, very competitive championship with top drivers and therefore I think there’s no reason why we shouldn’t make sure that competitive drivers over there cannot switch to Formula One,” Seidl said. “Absolutely open for some flexibility there in handing a guy like Colton the Super License, because at the end of it, what he has shown so far in his racing career, I have no doubt that he is absolutely able to compete in F1.”
The Thermal Club wants an IndyCar race, and series executives liked its initial impact at test
The team owners, drivers and engineers believed the 17-turn, 3.067-mile race course that winds and twists its way through a gated private community (about 45 minutes southeast of Palm Springs) had no relevance to any track on the 17-race schedule.
To the leaders of IndyCar, however, there was plenty of relevance to hosting its “Spring Training” at a sort of motorsports country club that caters to extremely wealthy residents who also are automotive enthusiasts.
“Both with our stakeholders and the media that covers IndyCar, we wanted them to know that we are going to do things differently,” Penske Entertainment CEO Mark Miles told NBC Sports from the private VIP viewing area that overlooks the long straights and twisting turns of the course. “This is going to be a year when we expect our growth to go to a whole new level.
“What better way to send that message than to be at a place we have never been that is exceptional?
“The quality of this place; the facilities are off the charts. The customer service, the welcoming feeling you get from the staff here. The track itself is fast. The drivers are having a great time on it.
“It really sent a message to our other promoters and our drivers and team owners that something is up. We want fans around the country and the sports industry to know that something is going on with IndyCar this year.”
The Thermal Club is a concept driven by Tim Rogers, who made his fortune by supplying gasoline to 7-Eleven stores in 36 states. He wanted to create a private community that mixed multimillion-dollar homes and luxury villas with a high-speed race course.
The two-day IndyCar “Spring Training” was the most ambitious motorsports project yet for The Thermal Club.
Rogers wants it to be the first step in a long-term goal for the community.
“Our endgame is we want to host an IndyCar Series race at The Thermal Club one day,” Rogers told NBC Sports as IndyCar hit the track again Friday morning. “This was a good trial to see how the facility can handle it and if the facility works for them.”
The two-day test was closed to the general public. It was open only to credentialed news media, members of the Thermal Club and a limited number of their guests.
With the spectacular backdrop of the Coachella Valley that is rimmed with snow-capped mountains, The Thermal Club could provide a great setting for an NBC telecast of an IndyCar Series race (and possibly line up a big sponsor for a return on its investment with a larger than normal audience during a ripe time such as the first weekend of February).
“Tim and everybody at The Thermal Club have done a phenomenal job of being hosts here for this test,” Miles said. “Everybody is very happy we are here, and I expect we will find a way to continue to be here. Whether that means a race and when is really a bridge we aren’t ready to cross yet.
“We really like opening the championship season each year in St. Petersburg, Florida. We’ll have to see. But it’s a great way to start the season in this way, and right now, we are happy to be here.”
On track, it was a successful two-day test session with 27 car/driver combinations that will compete in IndyCar in 2023. It’s the largest field for IndyCar since the 1990s. There were a few spins here and there but no major incidents across 2,560 laps.
Kyle Kirkwood led the final session Friday while getting acquainted with his new No. 27 team at Andretti Autosport. Kirkwood has replaced Alexander Rossi at Andretti, whom Kirkwood drove for in Indy Lights.
His time of 1 minute, 38.827 seconds (111.721 mph) around the 3.067-mile road course was the fastest of the fourth and final session. But the fastest speed over two days was defending Indy 500 winner Marcus Ericsson of Chip Ganassi Racing in the Friday morning session (1:38.4228, 112.182 mph in the No. 8 Honda).
Callum Ilott of Juncos Hollinger Racing was second in the final session at 1:38.8404 (111.707 mph) in the No. 77 Chevrolet. Rookie Marcus Armstrong of New Zealand was third at 1:38.8049 (111.707 mph) in the No. 11 Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing. Alex Palou of Chip Ganassi Racing was fourth at 1:38.8718 (111.672 mph) in the No. 10. Defending NTT IndyCar Series champion Will Power of Team Penske rounded out the top five at 1:38.9341 (111.602 mph) in the No. 12 Chevrolet.
Ericsson was the fastest in combined times followed by Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Christian Lundgaard at 1:38.5682 in the No. 45 Honda, Kirkwood, Ilott and Armstrong. Positions 3-5 speeds were from the final practice session on Friday.
Drivers didn’t know what to expect before hitting the track. After the two-day test was over, NBC Sports asked several drivers what they learned from The Thermal Club.
“I think it’s a first-class facility, no doubt,” two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden of Team Penske said. “I think the entire facility here at Thermal really rolled out the red carpet for us. They did a tremendous job.
“It was a fairly flawless test, I would say, for two days. I think the great thing about this was we had a two-day test, which was fantastic. You got to have this warmup; this preseason build. That was the biggest positive for me, is that we were here, we were running cars. It was a great facility to do it at.
“I think the track was a lot more fun than we anticipated. It was challenging, definitely technical. I don’t know how relevant it is. For us, it wasn’t really relevant to anywhere we’re going, but that’s OK.”
But even though the track has no sector particularly similar to any road or street course on the schedule, there still were benefits.
“In a lot of ways, it is relevant,” Newgarden said. “For us it was relevant for building the team up, trying to work in a competitive environment, be competitive together. That’s everything. So regardless of is the setup going to apply to a certain track or another, (it) doesn’t really matter.
“For us, it was applying the principles of how we’re going to work together. From that standpoint, it was very productive for everybody. Raceability-wise, it’s hard to say. It was chewing tires up. Big drop-off from run one to two. I think from a race standpoint, that would be quite positive. You’d have big tire deg here.
“You’d have to do more work on runoff areas if we wanted to race here, but it’s possible. I don’t think it would take much effort to do the things to run an actual race.”
Kirkwood found speed in his Andretti Autosport machine, but he used the test to create a smooth working relationship with his new crew.
“I wouldn’t say that we found something here that is going to translate to anywhere, right?” the 2021 Indy Lights champion said. “This is a very unique track, although it was a lot of fun to drive, and it kind of surprised me in the amount of grip that it actually produced.
“It was quite a bit faster than what we expected.”
Many of the NTT IndyCar Series teams will test later this month at Sebring, Florida, as they prepare for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg to kick off the season March 5.
“It’s a very nice facility, a nice area, it’s pretty cool to have two days of testing here with a lot of high-profile people,” two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Will Power of Team Penske told NBC Sports. “It’s a very technical, tough track.
“It’s pretty good.”
The Thermal Club received rave reviews, welcomed IndyCar and provided exposure to the movers and shakers of the business community that own the luxury villas and homes in this ultra-rich community.
Could it be a venue of the future for a series that sells lifestyle as much as on-track competition?
“This is a fantastic facility and the circuit is a fast circuit,” team owner Bobby Rahal told NBC Sports. “It’s pretty exciting to watch the cars run around here. I think it would be attractive to people.
“I’ll leave that up to Mark Miles and (IndyCar President) Jay Frye and everybody else whether we have a race here, but why not?