Herta scores dominant victory at Laguna Seca

Barry Cantrell/Lumen Digital

Herta scores dominant victory at Laguna Seca

IndyCar

Herta scores dominant victory at Laguna Seca

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Colton Herta destroyed, decimated, and dominated the other 26 drivers in attendance for Sunday’s NTT IndyCar Series’ penultimate round of the 2021 championship.

Streaking away from pole position, the Andretti Autosport driver dealt with real pressure for all of one lap and five corners until teammate Alexander Rossi — also starting on the front row — got a run and tried to take the lead, but spun and handed his fellow Californian the ticket to victory for the second time in two visits to WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca.

“I enjoy racing here so much, “ Herta said after leading 91 of 95 laps. “It’s an amazing track for me and my family. going two for two is great. It’s by far my favorite track in North America.”

Things became somewhat interesting in the middle phase of the 95-lap contest as tail-end cars proved to be nearly impossible to pass. Despite the delay, Herta was able to maintain the lead and weather the approach from championship leader Alex Palou who finished second, some 1.9s behind the No. 26 Honda driver.

“It was amazing,” Palou said. “I was surprised we were really competitive compared to Herta. We didn’t have it for the win. It was Herta’s day today. We go to Long Beach now.”

Palou’s No. 10 Chip Ganassi Racing Honda had his closest title rival, Pato O’Ward, on pace for a third-place finish in the No. 5 Arrow McLaren SP Chevy, but the hard-charging Graham Rahal ended that hope late in the No. 15 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Honda, giving the American arm of the Japanese brand a clean sweep of the podium.

Dale Coyne Racing with Rick Ware Racing’s Romain Grosjean — on an epic afternoon passing spree — motored by O’Ward with 15 laps to go to claim fourth as the AMSP driver was powerless to respond in fifth, where he finished.

And Grosjean wasn’t done; Rahal was in his sights and fell to fourth as the No. 51 Honda slid by into Turn 2. Palou was under 10 seconds up the road with 11 laps left to run, and while Herta had checked out, the final laps saw Palou’s hold on second begin to slip as the Grosjean was running between nearly two seconds faster at times. So much for a cruise to the checkered flag.

A clash with Jimmie Johnson at the Corkscrew slowed Grosjean’s incredible march forward, and despite his best efforts, he settled for third, 3.7s back to Herta and just 1.7s behind Palou.

After Rahal and O’Ward, CGR’s Marcus Ericsson was next in sixth after a day full of battles, and in seventh, Josef Newgarden completed a wild day of driving forward from the rear of the field.

With O’Ward in fifth and Palou in second, the fight for the 2021 IndyCar title widened from 25 points entering Monterey to 35. Newgarden maintained a mathematical chance of winning the title (-48 points) but it’s all but impossible. CGR’s Scott Dixon in 13th (-72 points) and Ericsson (-87 points) were cut from the title chase.

“All weekend, we didn’t have it,” O’Ward said. “I truly feel like we absolutely juiced every ounce of energy and pace this car had. In the race, that was as much as I had. I’m disappointed, but I’m happy that we maximized what we had.”

RESULTS

AS IT HAPPENED 

Colton Herta took off from pole position and led lap 1 as Felix Rosenqvist spun in Turn 3. The big mover was Scott Dixon who improved from P8 to P5, and on the second lap, Herta ran wide at Turn 4 which allowed Rossi to get a big run into Turn 5. Challenging Herta on the inside, Rossi got sideway, corrected, but tapped Herta’s left-rear tire and spun, bringing out the first caution of the day.

With poor starting positions to try and overcome, Sebastien Bourdais was among those to pit early on lap 3 and try to make an alternate pit strategy work to their favor. Rossi also pitted, resuming one lap down as the green flew to start lap 4.

Herta pulled a 1.2s advantage over Will Power in one lap as Alex Palou was 2.1s behind in third with Dixon 3.3s back in fourth. Simon Pagenaud executed a brave pass around the outside of Pato O’Ward at Turn 2 to claim P6.

Josef Newgarden pitted on lap 8 in an effort to use an alternate strategy to improve his diminishing championship hopes. Herta was putting on a clinic with a 3.5s lead over Power who pitted at the start of lap 10 to have an engine issue diagnosed. Power’s misfortune promoted Palou to P2, albeit 6s behind Herta. Dixon held P3, 10.8 behind Herta. Romain Grosjean’s passing was an impressive thing as he improved to P6. O’Ward and Pagenaud were next to pit among the lead pack on lap 12.

Lap 15 featured another spin by Felix Rosenqvist—this time at the Corkscrew—and he continued under his own power. Palou and Dixon pitted on lap 16, leaving Herta out in front by 16.8s over Grosjean.

Herta was in at the end of lap 18 as Grosjean inherited the lead. Grosjean was in the next lap. One the first round of pit stops were done, Herta was back in P1 with Palou 2.6s behind on lap 23. The earliest stoppers, led by Takuma Sato and Bourdais, were P3 and P4 with O’Ward in P5, 7.6s back from the leader.

Newgarden was in again, complaining of tire performance, and returned in P21. O’Ward improved to P3 with a pass and the help of Sato diving for the pits.

By lap 30, Hera — on Firestone primaries — was edging away from Palou on alternates and held a 2.7s advantage that grew from 2.0s in just a few laps. O’Ward was 24.0s arrears in P3 and had burned through a significant amount of push-to-pass to get and stay there. Dixon, on primaries, was sinking, down to P11 after Oliver Askew made a pass. Next on Askew’s list was Bourdais, who was demoted to P10.

Lap 34 showed Herta out 4.7s ahead of Palou, whose alternate tires appeared to be worn.

Sato spun at the Corkscrew on lap 37, and despite trying to avoid the car as it rolled backwards, Dixon was clipped and spun as well. Both drivers resumes on their own, but Dixon lost a few positions while Sato pitted. O’Ward was in on lap 38 to trade his alternates for new primaries. Herta was 6.2s clear of Palou, who pitted on lap 39 to do the same trade from alternates to primaries.

The gap to third was big enough for Palou to pit from and return to P2, albeit 31.3s back from Herta. With Palou carving into his lead, Herta pitted at the end of lap 42 for primaries. By lap 44, the separation was 2.1s with Grosjean in P3 and 10.0s arrears. O’Ward was P5 and 23.7 back.

Stuck behind Rosenqvist, Herta saw his lead fall to 1.1s on lap 47 as O’Ward was into p3, 23.8s behind. Newgarden pitted yet again.

By lap 49, Palou was only 0.9s behind Herta as Rosenqvist fought to stay on the lead lap. Behind them in P3, O’Ward’s gap to Hertas was down to 23s. They caught Jimmie Johnson and Max Chilton ahead of Rosenqvist; Palou stayed 0.6s or so behind Herta, but the big news was O’Ward fighting forward, 22s back by lap 51.

Make that 21.4s on lap 52; the traffic jam was playing into O’Ward’s favor. Lap 57 was more of the same as O’Ward drew the gap down to 18.8s as Herta and Palou remained stuck up front. Newgarden, in P12, and Dixon, in P16, were flirting with being knocked out of the championship conversation.

Herta finally cleared Rosenqvist on lap 58, and by lap 65, the top 3 had stabilized as Palou was 4.3s behind the leader and O’Ward was 17s as Palou pitted at the end of the lap and O’Ward joined in for their final trips to pit lane.

Herta was in at the end of lap 67 and took new primaries like Palou and O’Ward. Stuck behind Chilton, Palou lost nearly five seconds to Herta as lap 70 arrived.

Grosjean made a strong outside pass on O’Ward at Turn 3 on lap 80 that came with a temporary promotion to P4; O’Ward took it back, but lost it again the next lap.

By lap 87, the big news was Grosjean who was up to P3 and tearing into Palou’s P2 margin as he was slowed by traffic. Down to 5.2s, Grosjean was flying, cutting it to 3.1s the next lap.

A lunge by Grosjean on Johnson into the Corkscrew saw the two slowed on lap 89 as they clashed. Although it slowed the Frenchman, he picked up the pace and continued the sprint to catch Palou, who was 3.2s up the road.

Herta and Palou held on with Grosjean in an amazing third.

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