MONTEREY, California – A year ago, Colton Herta had his sights set on Formula 1.
He was so sure he would be entering the F1 World Championship in 2022 that he approached the final race of the 2021 NTT IndyCar Series season as a farewell.
That included hiring a video crew to document what he thought would be the last time he got into an IndyCar. At the time, Herta was 21 years old and knew that at his age he could always return to IndyCar later in his career. But he was convinced that team owner Michael Andretti was getting closer to buying the Sauber F1 team and joining it as a driver.
INDYCAR AT LAGUNA SECA: Details, season finale schedules on NBC
When Andretti looked to close the $600 million deal, Sauber was willing to take the money but didn’t want to give up control of the team. Wisely, Andretti had no interest in investing $600 million without having the majority stake and the deal fell through.
For Herta he returned to the No. 26 Dallara-Honda at Andretti Autosport and put aside his interest in Formula 1.
But when the 2022 season comes to an end, it seems so Another F1 opportunity has arisen for Herta on a pitch for the AlphaTauri team.
Herta isn’t approaching racing this weekend like he did at last year’s season finale at Long Beach’s Acura Grand Prix.
There will be no video crew filming Herta’s move at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca as Herta’s future remains unclear, especially with Andretti F1 still being prevented from joining their exclusive club by current F1 team bosses.
“I’m not doing that this weekend because there are still a lot of unknowns on this,” Herta said in an interview with NBC Sports this week. “A lot still has to happen. I’m focused on finishing the IndyCar race and then seeing what the options are.
“Nothing really evolved. It was what was in the news. I was trying to stay away from it and not make a meal out of it and try to finish that Laguna Seca race and then delve deeper into it after that.”
Despite returning to IndyCar this year, Herta remains a hot prospect in F1, particularly after signing a testing deal with McLaren Racing.
McLaren CEO Zak Brown saw huge potential in Herta and in the effort to help the driver gain an FIA Super Licence, tested Herta in a year-old McLaren F1 car in Portiamo, Portugal, on July 11.
Brown and McLaren were impressed with 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 CEO Christian Horner also rates Herta’s skills highly, calling him an “exciting talent”.
But the deal to bring Herta into AlphaTauri, Red Bull’s sister team, is reportedly conditional on Herta earning enough super license points to race in Formula 1.
There remains interest in Herta becoming the first Formula 1 driver from the US since Alexander Rossi in 2015, but without clarity on the FIA Super Licence, teams are unwilling to finalize a deal.
“It’s nice to hear that they were happy with the results of the F1 test and with the speed, the feedback and everything,” said Herta. “I had a good conversation with everyone. They were happy with how everything went and how prepared we were, and they were prepared. Everything seemed positive.”
If he were offered a Formula 1 drive, Herta said he would have to seriously consider many factors before making a decision.
Last year it was an easier choice because he was ready to move to F1 as a team owner with the support of Andretti. This time the move would be to an existing F1 team.
“I want to be happy where I am, where I live, with the team I’m with,” Herta said. “I have to be comfortable. There are many factors to consider when changing teams. It’s not something I’ve dealt with or thought of yet.
“It would mean a lot. I need to understand exactly what I’m getting myself into. I don’t at the moment. I would have to wait and see.
“I haven’t even read the articles about it. I get notifications on my phone.
“That’s the only good thing about the short IndyCar season, you have a lot of time to relax and think about what needs to be better next year and shoot in as well as you can.
“It’s hard to say, exactly. I really need to understand what I’m getting into and all aspects of it before I make such a big decision. There is a lot to think about before making decisions.”
There has been much debate about merit of FIA super license points that rank F1 feeder series (like F2) and other support tracks ahead of IndyCar to achieve the required 40 points for an F1 license. Andretti teammate and F1 veteran Romain Grosjean tweeted that Herta deserves recognitionas does Callum Ilott (who is ending his rookie IndyCar season after leaving F2).
“It’s interesting,” Herta said. “I can understand from their point of view that they are trying to protect their junior series and want people to go that route. But IndyCar deserves a point win.
“I can understand both aspects of the argument.
“I’m not ready to say where I’ll be 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 it.”
Meanwhile, Herta is gearing up for Sunday’s IndyCar season finale at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, aiming to complete the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey for the third consecutive year at the scenic road course on the Monterey Peninsula on California’s Central Coast to win.
With the current IndyCar series returning at Laguna Seca in 2019, Herta is the only pole winner and race winner in the two races held to date.
He led 83 of the 90 laps in the 2019 race. After racing was suspended in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Herta returned in 2021, leading 91 of the 95 laps.
Herta’s father Bryan was also back-to-back wins 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 dubbed the “Home of Herta”.
“It’s weird,” Colton Herta told NBC Sports. “It makes me think maybe it has something to do with the genetics of racing that some guys are good at some spots. It’s really an interesting thought.
“I really don’t know why we both did so well there.”
One of the greatest thrills in motorsport, Laguna Seca’s massive street circuit features massive elevation changes, a massive drop and the famous ‘Corkscrew’ – a series of corners descending the circuit’s highest point.
“It’s a lot of fun,” said Herta. “It’s a great track that has a little bit of everything. Lots of incline and the corkscrew of course, but it has a good mix of high and low speed corners. It’s always difficult to do a lap together there in qualifying.
“The biggest thing in the race is the tire grade. If your car fits the tires well. If you can handle the tires well, that’s the biggest thing that makes passes. You can see later in the stints the drivers start struggling with the grip going down.”
While the “corkscrew” is the most iconic part of Laguna Seca’s road course, Herta believes the second most iconic part comes just before the “corkscrew”.
“I really like the curve before the corkscrew, this fast left-hand bend,” explained Herta. “It’s a bit crooked when you turn in, then you get into an inclined position and you can take a lot of speed with you. The throttle at the exit is difficult to assess, you can fall on the ground and upset your balance.
“It’s a difficult corner that requires a lot of confidence, but I’m enjoying this corner.”
Herta entered the season as the leading contender for the NTT IndyCar Series championship. Instead, he goes into the final race of the season eighth on points, just a point ahead of outgoing Andretti Autosport teammate Alexander Rossi and just two points clear of 10thth– Place Felix Rosenqvist.
His only win of 2022 came in May at the GMR Grand Prix at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, one of just two podium finishes.
He finished second behind Scott Dixon in the Honda Indy Toronto.
It wasn’t much better for his Andretti Autosport team-mates as Rossi grabbed a win, while Romain Grosjean and rookie Devlin DeFrancesco are both winless.
“There are many factors why the team doesn’t do better,” said Herta. “We really didn’t make the most of the weekends. We had good cars on the weekends, but we didn’t make the most of that. We only got two podium places. It’s disappointing. The speeds were there, but we were missing a bit of everything throughout the race weekend.
“I can’t say for sure, but I think we can go over that again in the off-season to make sure we do better next year.
“It’s going to be something we need to dig into in the off-season 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 end the season with a win. That’s exactly what Herta wants to do on its best route on schedule.
The 2022 NTT IndyCar Series championship will be determined in Sunday’s race, with just 41 points separating the top five drivers. It’s the closest points race since the 2003 Indy Racing League season, which saw the top five separated by 30 points to head into the final race of the season.
Herta’s goal is to win and she doesn’t want to capitulate to the championship contenders.
“No, I don’t really care,” he said of championship five. “You don’t want to be the guy who knocks out the championship leader but that can’t stop you from pushing really hard and giving it your all like any other weekend.
“I’m doing it because I have to win the race and that’s about it.”
That would send Colton Herta into the off-season with a chance to seriously consider whether Formula 1 is his next step in racing.
“It seems like more and more IndyCar drivers are being recognized by Formula 1,” said Herta. “It’s refreshing to see guys like me and Pato O’Ward get a chance in Formula 1 testing. Let’s see, maybe it will open a few more doors. This is a great series too.
“You shouldn’t be ashamed of being an IndyCar driver.”