Colton Herta: ‘A lot still has to happen’ for F1 as he aims for three straight at Laguna Seca

Colton Herta Formula One
Brian Spurlock/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

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 SECADetails, 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.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500 

The Thermal Club wants an IndyCar race, and series executives liked its initial impact at test

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THERMAL, Calif. – Many teams in the NTT IndyCar Series questioned the relevancy of having a two-day preseason test at The Thermal Club.

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.

FRIDAY SPEEDSThird session l Fourth session l Combined

‘AN AMAZING PLACE’: IndyCar and its big plans for Thermal

“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.”

Felix Rosenqvist makes laps in the No. 6 Arrow McLaren Dallara-Chevrolet during the first day of NTT IndyCar Series testing (Andy Abeyta/The Desert Sun / USA TODAY Sports Images).

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).

NASCAR is using that same model Sunday at the Los Angeles Coliseum by hosting the Busch Light Clash. The National Football League’s AFC and NFC Championship games were last weekend and next Sunday is the Super Bowl.

“That could work, but we have room where we could separate the public and the private members area, too,” Rogers said. “We could accommodate 4,000 or so of the general public.

“This would be a premium event for a premium crowd.”

Rogers’ dream of The Thermal Club began 11 years ago. He will talk to IndyCar about a return for Spring Training next year with hopes of getting a date on the schedule for 2025.

“Whatever fits,” Rogers said.

Miles and Penske Entertainment, the owners of IndyCar, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and the Indianapolis 500, realize Rogers has an ambitious dream of getting a race on the schedule.

Miles, however, isn’t ready to indicate that a race at Thermal is part of IndyCar’s future (though drivers seem open to the concept).

“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.”

Indycar Series Test - Day 1
Defending IndyCar champion Will Power takes laps at The Thermal Club during the first day of the track’s first test (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

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.

Indycar Series Test - Day 1
With members’ houses in the background, Romain Grosjean navigates the turns of The Thermal Club in his No. 28 Dallara-Honda (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

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.

IndyCar Thermal Club test
Josef Newgarden said his No. 2 team (which has a new lead engineer) used The Thermal Club test as an opportunity for building cohesion (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).
Indycar Series Test - Day 2
Josef Newgarden (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

“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.”

Indycar Series Test - Day 1
Will Power (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images)

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.”

Indycar Series Test - Day 2
IndyCar drivers turns laps on the second day of testing at The Thermal Club, which is nestled in the Coachella Valley that is ringed by mountains in Southern California (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

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?

“It’s a great place.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500