MONTEREY, California – One year ago, Colton Herta had his sights focused on Formula One.
He was so sure that he would be joining F1’s world championship in 2022, that he approached the 2021 NTT IndyCar Series final race of the season as a farewell.
That included hiring a video crew to document what he thought would be the last time he climbed into an IndyCar. At that time, Herta was 21 and knew that at his age, he always could return to IndyCar later in his career. But he was convinced team owner Michael Andretti was closing in on the purchase of the Sauber F1 team and was going to join him as his driver.
INDYCAR AT LAGUNA SECA: Details, schedules for watching the season finale on NBC
As Andretti was about to close on the $600 million deal, Sauber was willing to take the money but would not relinquish control of the team. Wisely, Andretti had no interest in investing $600 million without having the controlling interest, and the deal fell apart.
For Herta, he returned to the No. 26 Dallara-Honda at Andretti Autosport and put his Formula One interest on hold.
But as the 2022 season winds down, it seems as if another F1 opportunity has materialized for Herta in a seat for the AlphaTauri team.
Herta isn’t approaching this weekend’s race the same way he did in last year’s season-finale at the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach.
There won’t be a video crew filming Herta’s ever move at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca because Herta remains unclear on his future, especially with Andretti F1 still blocked by the current F1 team principals on joining their exclusive club.
“I’m not taking that approach this weekend because there are still a lot of unknowns in this thing,” Herta told NBC Sports in an interview this week. “A lot still has to happen. I’m focused on finishing the IndyCar race, then seeing what the options are.
“Nothing has really developed. It’s been what is in the news. I’ve tried to stay away from it and not make a meal out of it and try to get this Laguna Seca race done, and then delve into it more deeply after that.”
Though Herta returned to IndyCar this year, he has remained a hot prospect in F1, notably after signing a test contract with McLaren Racing.
McLaren CEO Zak Brown saw tremendous potential in Herta and in an effort to help the driver gain an FIA Super License, tested Herta in a year-old McLaren F1 car in Portimao, Portugal, on July 11.
Brown and McLaren were impressed by Herta’s results.
Even after signing Oscar Piastri to replace Daniel Ricciardo in one of the two McLaren F1 seats in 2023, Brown remains high on Herta’s potential. Red Bull F1’s CEO Christian Horner is also high in assessing Herta’s ability, calling him an “exciting talent.”
But the deal to put Herta in AlphaTauri, Red Bull’s sister team, reportedly is contingent on Herta being granted enough Super License points to race in F1.
There remains interest in Herta becoming Formula One’s first driver from the United States since Alexander Rossi in 2015, but without clarity on the FIA Super License, teams are not willing to close a deal.
“It’s nice to hear that they were pleased with the results of the F1 test and happy with the speed and the feedback and everything,” Herta said. “I had a good call with everybody. They were pleased with how everything went and how we were prepared, and they were prepared. It seemed like all positives.”
If offered a Formula One ride, Herta said he would have to give serious consideration to a lot of factors before making a decision.
It was an easier choice last year because he was ready to make the move to F1 with the support of Andretti as the team owner. This time, the move would be to an existing F1 team.
“I want to be happy about where I am, where I’m living, the team that I’m with,” Herta said. “I have to be comfortable. There are a lot of factors that you have to consider when you do switch teams. It’s nothing I’ve delved into or thought of yet.
“It would need to mean a lot. I would need to understand exactly what I’m getting into. I don’t at the moment. I would have to wait and see.
“I haven’t even been reading the articles about it. I get notifications on my phone.
“That’s the one good thing about IndyCar’s season being short, you have a lot of time to decompress and think of what needs to be better for next year and shoot into it the best we can.
“It’s hard to say, exactly. I really need to understand what I’m getting into and all the aspects of it before I make a decision that big. There is a lot to think about before any decisions are made.”
There has been much debate about the merit of FIA Super License points, which rank F1 feeder series (such as F2) and other support circuits ahead of IndyCar for scoring the necessary 40 points for an F1 license. Andretti teammate and F1 veteran Romain Grosjean has tweeted that Herta deserves approval, as has Callum Ilott (who is wrapping his rookie IndyCar season after leaving F2).
“It is an interesting one,” Herta said. “I can understand from their aspect they are trying to protect their junior series and want people to go through that way. But IndyCar deserves a bump in points.
“I can understand both aspects of the argument.
“I’m not ready to say where I will be for next year. I have a contract with Andretti for next year and I don’t want to think about anything else until next season, so that’s about it.”
Meantime, Herta is preparing for Sunday’s IndyCar season finale at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, aiming to win the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey for the third consecutive time at the scenic road course on the Monterey Peninsula on California’s Central Coast.
Since the current IndyCar Series returned in 2019 at Laguna Seca, Herta is the only pole winner and race winner in the two races held so far.
He led 83 of the 90 laps in the 2019 race. After the race went on pause in 2020 for the COVID-19 pandemic, Herta returned in 2021 to lead 91 of the 95 laps.
Herta’s father, Bryan, also went back-to-back with victories at Laguna Seca in 1998 and 1999 and was a three-time pole winner from 1997-99.
Combine Bryan’s record with Colton’s and Laguna Seca has been nicknamed the “House of Herta.”
“It is weird,” Colton Herta told NBC Sports. “It makes me think maybe there is something to do with genetics with race car driving that some guys are good at some places. It really is an interesting thought.
“I really don’t know why we were both so good there.”
One of the biggest thrill rides in motorsports, the massive Laguna Seca road course features tremendous elevation changes, a massive drop-off, and the famed “Corkscrew” – a series of turns coming down the highest point of the race course.
“It’s a lot of fun,” Herta said. “It’s a great track that has a little bit of everything. Obviously, a lot of elevation and the Corkscrew, but it has a good mixture of corners with high-speed and low speed. It’s always difficult in qualifying to get a lap together there.
“The biggest thing in the race is tire deg. If your car matches the tires good. If you are able to manage the tires good, that is the biggest thing that sets up passes. You can see drivers later in stints start to struggle with the grip goes away.”
While the “Corkscrew” is the most iconic part of Laguna Seca’s road course, Herta believes the second-most unique part comes just before the “Corkscrew.”
“I really like the turn before the Corkscrew, that quick left-hander,” Herta explained. “It’s a little off-camber at turn-in, then you get into the banking, and you can carry a lot of speed in. The curbing on the exit is hard to judge, you can bottom and upset the balance.
“It is a difficult corner that takes a lot of confidence, but I enjoy that turn.”
Herta entered the season considered a leading challenger for the NTT IndyCar Series championship. Instead, he enters the final race of the season eighth in points, just one point ahead of departing Andretti Autosport teammate Alexander Rossi and only two points ahead of 10th-place Felix Rosenqvist.
His only victory in 2022 came in the GMR Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in May, one of just two podium finishes.
He was second to Scott Dixon in the Honda Indy Toronto.
It wasn’t much better for his Andretti Autosport teammates as Rossi scored one win, Romain Grosjean and rookie Devlin DeFrancesco are both winless.
“There are a lot of factors why the team doesn’t have better results,” Herta said. “We really didn’t maximize the weekends. The weekends we had good cars, we didn’t make the most of that. We only got two podiums. It is disappointing. The speeds have been there, but we lacked a little bit of everything for the whole race weekend.
“I can’t pinpoint it down to exactly, but I think that will be something we can go over in the offseason to make sure we do better next year.
“It’s going to be something to delve into during the offseason to see what we need to do better to come out with a bang next year.”
The best way to start next season with a bang, is to finish the season with a win. That is exactly what Herta intends to do at his best track on the schedule.
The 2022 NTT IndyCar Series championship will be determined in Sunday’s race with the top five drivers separated by just 41 points. It’s the closest points race since the 2003 Indy Racing League season had the top-five separated by 30 points entering the final race of that season.
Herta’s goal is to win and doesn’t plan on yielding to the championship contenders.
“No, I don’t really care,” he said of the championship five. “You don’t want to be the guy that takes out the championship leader, but that can’t deter you from pushing really hard and giving it your all like every other weekend.
“I’m approaching it as I need to win the race and that’s pretty much it.”
That would send Colton Herta into the offseason with a chance to seriously consider whether Formula One is his next step in racing.
“It seems like more and more IndyCar drivers are getting recognized by Formula One,” Herta said. “It is refreshing to see guys like me and Pato O’Ward get a shot at Formula One testing. We’ll see, maybe it will open some more doors. This is a great series, too.
“You shouldn’t be ashamed to be an IndyCar driver.”