ST. PETERSBURG, Fla — Colton Herta put on a masterful job this past weekend on the streets of St. Pete. The Andretti Autosport driver won the pole for Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Pete and turned that into a downright rout of the field in leading 97 of 100 laps in dominating fashion.
If not for a couple of late race yellows, there’s no reason to believe that Herta wasn’t going to cross the finish line in a vastly different zip code than the rest of his competition. Instead, he had to hold off every INDYCAR champion since 2015 on two pressure packed restarts to secure his fourth career victory.
We have to question now, is the young Herta Mania the future of this sport? Yes, there’s plenty of other youthful drivers in this series right now to make the future bright, but is Herta the leading candidate among them?
“I would say so. I don’t want to discount someone like Rossi, either,” Josef Newgarden said on if he feels like Herta is Andretti’s lead driver now. “I think Alex is certainly capable of being in that mix every weekend, so I think it would be unwise to discount him, but I think Herta is without a doubt their — to me he seems like the top gun over there.
“He’s so young; he started, whatever it was, I think three years ago, but he’s still so young right now, so he’s got a lot of runway, pretty level-headed, has a great crew around him. I know his engineer. He was my first engineer. He’s got a great team around him. Seems to work well with his dad. I was watching his dad this weekend and how proud he was of him when he was getting in the car, and they just seem like they have good chemistry.
“Yeah, I think they’ll be in the mix without a doubt all year, but like I said, I wouldn’t discount some of the other boys over at Andretti. I think they have some other capable drivers, too, and not just Herta.”
Newgarden’s Team Penske teammate Simon Pagenaud agreed.
“Yeah, I think he’s fantastic. He’s a great driver. He’s really young, so he’s got a lot of room to improve still, which is impressive,” said the 2019 Indy 500 champion.
“But I see a lot of young guys coming up and having just as much talent and potential in the future, being championship contenders, as well. The series is at its highest level right now. It’s just incredible to see the talents and the personalities, as well. Yeah, look forward to the future.”
What’s impressive is, Herta’s done this while this being his first season under the full Andretti umbrella. His rookie year he was with Harding Steinbrenner Racing in an alliance with AA. Same with last season. This year, he moves into the AA stable of drivers full time in the No. 26 Honda.
Since he joined the series in 2019, Herta has won four times. By comparison, Alexander Rossi has won just twice in that same time frame including riding a 23 race winless streak. Although it’s still early, Herta looks like a legitimate championship favorite this year.
That’s what he expected though. He told me during the preseason media day call that all he wants to do is get better each and every season.
“I believe I can,” said the California native back in March on if he can win the title this year. “I think we showed it last year of what could have been. If I didn’t have that slipup at Iowa, mess that up for us, we could have been really good in the championship hunt going into the last round.
“The biggest setback is that we need to win more races. Can’t be winning one or two races a year and winning a championship. You need to be winning three or four races. That’s kind of my goal is to try to get to that number. That’s been the trend the last few years for guys that have won the championship, is they’re winning four race as year. When they’re not winning, they’re finishing on the podium.
“I have full faith in myself and in the team that we can do it, but it’s going to take a lot of effort from everybody.”
He’s improved from his rookie year to 2020. Can he do so from 2020 to 2021?
“I like to see progress every year in myself, more so on the championship side of things,” Herta continued that day. “I’d like to make a true championship run down to the wire, have the ability to truly win it. That’s my goal. That’s the team’s goal.
“Obviously alongside with that, winning the Indy 500 and putting a lot of resources and time towards that at the same time. But kind of cutting out the mistakes, changing kind of those top fives, fourth and fifth places that we had last year, we had a bunch of them, into podiums, and some of those podiums we had into wins. We need to win a little bit more and we need a little bit more podiums, a tiny bit more consistency to really make a true championship run.”
As to what areas that he can close that gap from top fives to get onto the podium, Herta said there’s a few that stand out.
“I think there was a few places that some guys — really just (Alexander) Rossi that I was comparing to, there were two rounds in particular that he was able to get a little bit better fuel mileage without being too much slower than I was,” he said. “He was able to go a lap longer at some of the places. That’s kind of like the key for me this year.
“Obviously I think everybody understands how important pit stop cycles are in INDYCAR, and strategy, it makes or breaks the race. Being able to save that little bit more fuel, still be in touch with the leaders, can open a whole new array of strategy options for you during the race.”
So far, he’s capitalized on this in turning a race winning car to a race winner. That’s easier said than done. Can he keep it up?