ST. PETERSBURG, Fla — Colton Herta was untouchable during Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Pete. The 21 year old driver stomped the field as he led a race-high 97 of 100 laps in the second NTT IndyCar Series race of the season. It was Herta’s fourth career Indy Car triumph, which ties his father on the wins list.
He did so from the pole as all four of his wins now have come when he earned the top starting spot that weekend. He’s 4-for-6 in terms of winning the pole as well as the race in a race weekend.
“Yeah, I touched the wall a few times, but nothing too big, just small pancakes. I think maybe like two, three times on the right side,” Herta said on if he made any mistakes on Sunday.
Herta, crossed the finish line 2.4933-seconds ahead of second place finisher Josef Newgarden as the finish was a little closer than it was going to be due to a couple of late race cautions.
Jimmie Johnson spun on track on Lap 73, just after the final pit sequence concluded. Then, eight laps later, Ed Jones, James Hinchcliffe and Pato O’Ward brought out the third and final caution. Herta, had to outduel the two time defending race winner in Newgarden as well as 2016 champion Simon Pagenaud and six time series champ Scott Dixon on the two restarts.
For a 21 year old driver, he never flinched.
Herta, drove a flawless race and got a much needed rebound weekend following a disappointing 22nd place result in the season opener last week at the Barber Motorsports Park. He was collected in an opening lap crash that was sparked by second place finisher on Sunday, Newgarden. Both got finishes that they needed.
Newgarden, earned his third straight top two result in St. Pete following seven straight finishes of 7th or worse prior.
Simon Pagenaud came home third in his No. 22 Chevrolet for his third straight top seven and seventh in the last eight years. Pagenaud, was 12th last weekend for a much needed podium for this weekend’s top three finishers.
Jack Harvey went from second to finish fourth in his No. 60 Honda while Scott Dixon did Scott Dixon things to finish fifth in his No. 9 Honda.
Here are my main takeaways from Sunday’s race.
Tires Strategy Big Reason How Herta Claimed Win
Colton Herta said following his pole on Saturday that they’d have some homework to do on which tire compound would be the preferred on for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Pete.
“Yeah, I mean, I went into this session thinking that it was going to be a black race, like it was last year. Now I’m kind of scratching my head because I know a lot of guys might not be able to make it work, but it seems like we might be one of the guys that might be able to make it work on red tires, used reds,” he said on Saturday. “We’ll have to wait and see. Have a lot of data to go through tonight.
“For me, the grip level was very similar to the new reds after they had a heat cycle on them, which is very strange. Haven’t really seen that in my INDYCAR career yet. That’s something to look at, something to think about. It will definitely make the race more interesting if guys are choosing to run those used reds over new blacks.”
Well, he went back to his initial thoughts for the race. Herta and fellow front row starter Jack Harvey started the 100 lap race off on the alternate tires. They got them out of the way in efforts to go with the Firestone primary tires the rest of the way.
The Row 2 starters in Penske teammates Josef Newgarden and Simon Pagenaud each went with the Firestone Reds on their Chevrolet’s. The varying strategies among the four is why the ending played out the way that it did.
Herta, pulled away early on and could keep his Red tires fresher than Harvey who had to hold off the Penske guys behind. That allowed Herta to use scuffed blacks on the second stop and a fresh set of primaries for the final sprint to the checkered.
“I mean, yeah, obviously you’re pretty hyperfocused all the time in the car, but when you’re in the lead you just have that little bit more drive to find that last few hundredths each lap,” Herta said.
“We were actually saving fuel quite big and kind of once we got 25 to go we didn’t have to hit a number at all because we saved enough fuel, and obviously yellows helped, but I don’t want to say we were cruising but we just got that momentum going to where I knew I was lifting every lap to save fuel and I know exactly how hard to hit the brake pedal. So it wasn’t really coming easy, but obviously it’s easier when you have that good of a car and when it’s able to save fuel and go that fast it’s amazing.
“I can’t say enough about the whole team effort, everyone at Gainbridge, Group 1001 and all of my guys that did a fantastic job on all the stops. I know that first stop might have been a little nerve-racking for them, but we got it done.
“That’s the difficult thing about saving fuel on the red tires. Obviously you’re lifting so you’re braking later, you’re braking a little bit harder, which you’re more susceptible to rear locking, which absolutely destroys the tires, plus you’re trying to carry that speed through the corners more to make up for lifting early on. So obviously you’re using a lot more of the tire.
“Yeah, I think we just had the perfect balance of in normal places you would want a little bit of oversteer. That’s the best way to save fuel and go fast. But for here I thought it was going to be understeer, especially for that first stint on the new reds to get them to the end. It ended up being the right decision with the way that we went because I was just able to thrash on the front tires and not even worry about the rear tires. It made it a lot easier for me.”
Harvey, was passed by Newgarden on Lap 30 and had to pit with Pagenaud on his bumper on Lap 34. He went with scuffed blacks with Pagenaud doing the same two laps later. By doing so, Pagenaud leap frogged Harvey for third.
Newgarden, remained on reds for his second stint, but couldn’t ever catch Herta. But he did put some distance between he and Pagenaud in the battle for second which is why he remained there after the final stops.
Herta had fresh blacks while Newgarden and Pagenaud went with reds. That’s why even with two late race cautions, Herta could pull away from them. The blacks had more life left in them at the end of the race in comparison to the reds.
Despite that, Herta did say he was a little nervous on the restart on if Newgarden saved enough from his reds. He was wondering if he could make the reds work like Ihecouldn’t really on the restart earlier.
“He seemed to — so-so, kind of we were similar,” said Herta. “And then once we kind of got up to 10, he seemed to be crawling all over me, but then eventually I saw the dropoff point in the tires peaked and started to go down in performance whereas the blacks stayed the same, and eventually we got to that crossover point where the blacks were better at the end.
“On the restarts, I found something early on that I thought the red tires might have been a little bit worse for restarts, but I think they were more equal than we have seen in the past because on the first restart I was on reds, he was on blacks, he was able to stay really close, and on the restarts when I was on blacks, I felt the tires come up really quick with the blacks rather than the reds,” Herta said on the change in the mindset and how it played out.
“Obviously we saw Josef was really fast on the red tires early on, and then we kind of saw that crossover point where I was able to start pulling out some good laps and his tires were starting to fall off.
“But I think never really doubted myself or the team today. We had such good cars all across the board. It seemed like the weekend at one point or another, one of the Andretti guys was always in the top two or three.
“You know, what an amazing weekend for me, and obviously for the whole team, bringing this package of dampers and obviously just having the race cars how they’ve been is spectacular.”
Much Needed Finishes For Podium Drivers
Colton Herta may have dominated Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Pete with leading all but three laps, but for the other two drivers on the podium this weekend, they joined Herta in scoring some much needed top three results.
That’s because the top two finishers on Sunday (Herta-Josef Newgarden) both were involved in that scary opening lap crash in last Sunday’s season opener at the Barber Motorsports Park. Newgarden would finish 23rd and Herta in 22nd. For both, they had championship aspirations this season and to already come out in a huge deficit to start the year off with, they couldn’t afford any more mulligans.
So, for Herta to earn his fourth career win and Newgarden to come away with his third straight St. Pete top two result, both were badly needed.
Herta moves from 22nd to fourth in the points and is only five back from the lead.
“It’s huge. We needed — I was talking to my engineer. Really coming into this weekend we knew we really needed to win,” said Herta. “We needed to hit the reset button. We needed a good points swing for us, not only for the — well, I guess mostly for the championship, but you have to think Texas is next week and we were dead last on the points, so we were going to have to qualify early and go out there early and probably not qualify super well. So I’m super happy to get the win, obviously because it’s a win, but it’ll put us up in the championship, and that’s going to make our lives that much easier in Texas and that much easier going forward for the rest of the season.”
Newgarden goes from 23rd, 46 points out, to 10th, 20 points back.
“It was important for us to get on the board,” Newgarden said. “I said we needed to do that last weekend. We didn’t accomplish that. But a good bounceback by the entire crew and the team, and to get some good points is really what we needed today, so we accomplished that.
“Now we can get our season off the ground, get going to Texas and feeling good about things. But pretty happy about what we put together.
“I think team Chevy did a really nice job doing their homework, and I think us as a group we put in a lot of effort this off-season and found some good pace. We were in the mix today without a doubt. We were in the fight, just came up a little bit short. But I think a lot of the work from all the people at Team Penske is paying off, and it’s good to get a podium finish for team Chevy and Hitachi.
“I was really pleased for Colton, for him to have a solid day. I think him and his crew were certainly deserving of the victory. They were very strong. Just a touch better than us I would say on the day today. They worked hard, and it was nice to get them get a bounceback event, too. They got caught up in the mess last week through no fault of their own. I felt pretty bad. It was just one of those things. It’s tough to have a bad weekend, and when you affect others it makes it double tough.
“Yeah, pleased for both of us, I guess, but we can get our season started now and feel pretty good about things, and was happy to have a nice little battle with Colton. I think we had a good little race there at the end. It’ll be fun to do that hopefully a couple more times this season.”
Newgarden said that he was thinking race win on the couple of late race restarts, but he was also thinking championship too in terms of don’t do anything stupid to take himself or Herta out either.
“Definitely both,” he said. “You know, it was kind of serendipitous that it was me and Colton there at the end. I definitely appreciated that personally that we were kind of bouncing back together here after last weekend’s difficulty. But I was pushing him. I mean, look, if he gave me an opportunity to win the race, I was going to take it, as we all should. It just wasn’t quite there.
“I really had gotten a second chance at it. If those cautions didn’t come out, I think Colton was going to kind of walk us. He was just better today. He had a little bit on us for sure. But with that fresh opportunity with the two cautions, I pushed as hard as I could directly after them. I mean, I was really looking for a clear, clear opening, and I was close. It was very close to being open there, but it just wasn’t quite enough.
“Yeah, I was looking for the win, but certainly tempering things trying to make sure we had a solid day.”
Then you have Simon Pagenaud. He wouldn’t confirm nor deny whether he’s got a contract in place for Team Penske next season, but if he doesn’t, then he’s watched all but himself and Brad Keselowski get their contracts solidified for them.
Pagenaud, is coming off of a disappointing season in 2020 and following a 12th place result last Sunday in Barber, it wasn’t a good start shaping up again. Then, he goes out and is fifth and sixth respectively in the two practice sessions this weekend and follows that up with a fourth place starting spot. Pagenaud, improved one spot in the race to get his 36th career podium on Sunday.
He’s now fifth in the standings, 13 points out, heading to a very good track for him at Texas.
“Overall great performance all weekend,” said the 2016 series champion. “Thanks to the whole team for working on the street course package as hard as it did with team Chevy, and overall great performance. I think very pleased with third place. It’s a really good hope for the championship knowing how good we’re going to be on oval.
“I think the street course package is very satisfying. I think we’ve made big improvements, especially since we were here last year. We had a good understanding what we needed from the car, and we found a really good package for my style. So very excited about street course racing.
“On the road course, yeah, we need to keep digging, keep finding some performance. Not fully happy there, and I think this is probably our weakness compared to how good we’re going to be on oval, which I think is going to be our most strength — our biggest strength this year. So that’s where we’re at.”
Dixon, Power Have Quietly Solid Days
You didn’t see much of Scott Dixon or Will Power on Sunday, but when it was all said and done, there both were in the top 10, top five in Dixon’s case. Scott Dixon scored his 176th career top five result in Sunday’s race to give him 12 straight top 10’s if you date back to last season. He’s also had six straight top seven results and nine in his last 10 tries at St. Pete. He’s just 0-for-17 in his career on the street course in terms of a win.
For Will Power, he had his worst starting spot in years with a bad first round on Saturday. He’d roll off 20th on Sunday as a result. Power, didn’t stay there long. He’d do a three stop strategy and pass the second most cars (13) out of anyone in the field in the race to come away with an eighth place result. It was his 152nd top 10 of his career.
Now, both sit in a tie for second in the standings, two points behind last weeks winner Alex Palou heading to Texas for a doubleheader next Saturday-Sunday.
Sato, Ericsson Big Movers On Sunday
Takuma Sato started Sunday’s race in 15th. Marcus Ericsson started alongside of him in Row 8. Both nabbed top 10’s when it was all said and done.
Sato, brought his No. 30 Honda home in sixth for his fourth top 10 in his last six St. Pete tries while Ericsson was seventh for a second consecutive year.
Ericsson, is ninth in points now (-17) and is one of just five drivers to score a top 10 in both races run in 2021.
VeeKay Off To A Strong Start To Sophomore Season
Rinus VeeKay started off 2020 slowly at Texas. He crashed twice. He started off 2021 in the wall at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in a test session a few weeks ago. He broke his finger as a result. But, when the races have counted this year, he’s been impressive. There’s been no sophomore slump out of him.
VeeKay, was collected in the opening lap crash last Sunday in Barber but rebounded to finish sixth. In St. Pete, he qualified seventh and would bring his No. 21 Chevrolet home in ninth for his seventh career top 10 result. He’s 2-for-2 in 2021 after having 5 in 14 races last year.
Now, he heads back to Texas, the spot where he struggled at last year.
RLL vs. Andretti on track issues
Andretti Autosport got the win via Colton Herta on Sunday, but the rest of the team is left scratching their heads in frustration. AA had a disappointing start to their 2020 season and it wasn’t until late in the year that they finally got things turned around.
They had a great weekend at St. Pete for the season finale, but several mistakes kept them out of victory lane. Same thing for the Indy 500 last August too.
With solid outings early on this weekend with Herta and Alexander Rossi, it went all downhill for the AA group other than Herta from there.
Rossi struggled on the tires in Q2 and would qualify 11th. James Hinchcliffe was alongside in 12th. Ryan Hunter-Reay narrowly missed out on the second round and would start 13th.
In the race itself, Hinchcliffe got a flat on Lap 23 with contract in Turn 1 from Takuma Sato. He’d have to have an unscheduled pit stop as a result. That dropped him to an 18th place finish in the end. He was 17th in Barber.
Then, Lap 37 saw Alexander Rossi and Graham Rahal have an ontrack incident in Turn 5. Both describe it as a racing incident and have no hard feelings, but it was the second on track contact between RLL and Andretti drivers.
It further led to more frustrations.
Rossi, had such high championship hopes for 2021 and he’s out to a ninth and 21st place finishes respectively. He was also 21st last year in St. Pete. That has him 16th in the points, 36 out of the top spot.
Hinchcliffe, is 19th (-42) while Ryan Hunter-Reay is 21st (-45). For Hunter-Reay, he too was collected in the first lap crash last weekend and was scored in last (24th). He was 14th on Sunday.
Youth Here To Stay
We already knew the young guys were here to stay but with 24 year old Alex Palou earning the win in the season opener at 21 year old Colton Herta winning on Sunday, the future remains very bright for this series. Will we see another younger driver reach victory lane next weekend in Texas?
Similar Guys Up Front Ones To Beat In May?
Colton Herta had a chance for a top five in his rookie start at Texas. He was seventh last year. I’d say watch out for him in both races next weekend. But, same for the other guys up front.
Josef Newgarden was first in 2019 and third last year. Simon Pagenaud has two runner-ups in his last three Texas tries to go along with five straight top six results. Scott Dixon has two wins in the last three Texas tries.
Then we go to the IMS road course where Herta was in the top four in all three races last year. Newgarden won 1 of the 3 and was in the top seven in the other two while Pagenaud has three Indy road course wins himself and Dixon with four top two finishes in his last six tries.
The Indy 500 wraps it up where Newgarden has four top 10’s in his last five tries, Herta being eighth last year and Pagenaud a win in 2019. Dixon, has two podiums in his last three ‘500 starts.
As you can see, these four could really separate themselves over the next month.
St. Pete By The Numbers
- 15 of the 17 years has the winner came from a top 10 starting position.
- 12 of the last 16 race winners at St. Pete started in the top five.
- 10 of the last 11 races have seen a top 3 starter win.
- Both races this season saw 4 of the top 5 starters finish in the top 5.
- This was just the 3rd time that the pole winner won at St. Pete, the last one prior to Sunday coming in 2010.
- Since the new car came out in 2018, the “Big 3” have won 42 of the 50 races run (84-percent). Penske has won 22 times with Ganassi (11) and Andretti (9). But, RLL is next best with four victories while no one else has more than three.
- Throw in RLL and you get 46 of 50 races won by these teams.
- If you go back to 2016 though, that number stays the same. The “Big 3” have won 68 of 86 races run in that time frame. Throw in RLL and you get 75 of 88.