Colton Herta closed last season as the most dominant driver on the NTT IndyCar Series’ championship trail, and if he’s going to capture his first title by the end of the year, the trend will need to carry over into the opening rounds of 2022.
With four races left on the 2021 calendar, he started second at World Wide Technology Raceway and led 101 laps until a mechanical failure ended his day. Portland was a slight step backwards after starting sixth and finishing eighth, but Monterey saw a commanding correction with a pole and win. And then we had the championship finale at Long Beach where a miscue in qualifying relegated the No. 26 Andretti Autosport Honda to 15th on the grid; Herta fixed the mistake by storming to the front and leading 43 of 85 laps on the way to another victory.
He also authored a crushing win at Round 2 in St. Petersburg where he led 97 of 100 laps, but it was a mix of adversity across the seven opening races of the season that stifled Herta’s chances of taking the IndyCar crown. Five of those seven races ended with finishes of 13th or worse, and with such a large deficit to overcome in the championship standings, the late-season rally only served to improve Herta’s final position to fifth, nearly 100 points behind title winner Alex Palou.
If the 21-year-old from California is going to get the job done, he knows he can’t afford to dig out of another hole.
“You set the mindset when you get your result in the first round,” Herta told RACER. “So if we could go out there and win, it would be a big deal. How many times have we seen in the past how guys have won the first race and ended up winning the championship? Actually, it’s happened a lot in the last 10 years, so it’s pretty incredible with what a win at the first race can do for you.
“Palou did it last year, and (Scott) Dixon the year before, and Josef (Newgarden) the year before that. So yeah, that’s the goal, to push like heck out of the gate in the first race. And based on how we do at St. Pete, then we’ll gauge how to go about things from there.”
Herta has two new teammates to work with this year as Romain Grosjean and Devlin DeFrancesco have joined Andretti’s four-car operation. Herta and Alexander Rossi are the two returning team veterans, and despite leading last week’s two-day test at Sebring, he says it will take time for the revised line-up to jell.
“It was interesting because we don’t get much time to test before the season starts, so we were all doing our own thing at Sebring,” Herta noted. “I know we were pretty busy throughout the day, so we didn’t get a ton of time to talk to each other. But for sure we tried some things that they tried and they thought were good, and vice versa. So it was positive all around.”
Herta and his race engineer Nathan O’Rourke are locked into their game plan of trying to win on Sunday and use the momentum to ignite a championship run. Once they get through more races, Herta hopes the new Andretti drivers will help propel the team forward in the standings.
“Tests like we had at Sebring are really only useful for getting back in the car and into the flow of things,” he said. “We’ve got to practice every aspect of what we might see in St. Pete, so Sebring was more about going through a rehearsal of our plans. All of us working together and bouncing ideas off each other will really start once the season starts.”