Colton Herta is IndyCar's new hero shining in its no-nonsense show

Indycar Racing News

IndyCar has a breakout star on its hands in Colton Herta and the 21-year-old showed just how good a simple motor race can be

Colton Herta, 2021 GP of St Pete

Herta's stock continues to rise after another victory

David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Did you catch the Formula E double-header from Valencia on the BBC at the weekend? If so, how’s the blood pressure? I suspect mine went through the roof. So thank goodness then for the refreshing IndyCar round from St Petersburg on Sunday evening, courtesy of Sky Sports F1, which lowered my stress levels and revived my faith that modern motor sport doesn’t have to contrived and over-complicated. This was a proper motor race on a decent street circuit, and there was even a crowd to enjoy it – albeit Covid-limited to 20,000.

IndyCar is flying high at the moment under Roger Penske’s watch. A grid of 24 cars took the start in St Pete, driven by a pack full of genuine depth and talent – both young and, shall we say, more mature. Six-time champion Scott Dixon, 40, drove a typically canny race for Chip Ganassi Racing to rise from eighth to fifth and will surely be a contender for a seventh crown come season’s end.

Likewise, other usual suspects made their presence felt. Two-time Indy 500 winner and former F1 ace Takuma Sato, 44, tore from 15th to sixth at the flag; Penske’s Will Power, 40, climbed from 20th to eighth; and team-mate Simon Pagenaud, 36 – running in a fantastically tacky ‘Elvis in Vegas’ type livery – scored his first podium finish since he won in Iowa last July.

But the main story was the battle for the win that played out between Colton Herta, the 21-year-old son of former IndyCar race winner Bryan, and Penske’s two-time champion Josef Newgarden. The duel had added nuance given the latter’s spin on the first lap of the season opener just a week earlier at Barber, Alabama that triggered a multi-car shunt – of which the first victim was… Herta.

Colton Herta, Alabama GP IndyCar 2021

Herta was one of the big names caught up in the first-lap wreck at Barber

Brian Spurlock/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Now here they were a week later running at the front, Andretti Autosport’s Herta more than holding his own from his well-earned pole position. In fact, he scored a resounding lights-to-flag victory. If that doesn’t sound thrilling stick with me: good motor racing is built around tension and uncertainty over the final result, and although the Honda-powered youngster put in an almost faultless performance – he grazed a wall on one lap – a couple of late safety car interruptions meant Newgarden was within touching distance of scoring what would have been his third straight IndyCar win at St Pete. It was the chase and the satisfaction of Herta executing a race so beautifully that kept me hooked.

In Victory Lane, Herta took a few minutes to rise from his Dallara to accept his applause. One hundred laps of the Florida street circuit had taken its toll, and the painfully raw blisters on his hands were a testament to the hard work he’d put in to make it look easy. He wasn’t the only one. English ace Jack Harvey, a front-row qualifier for the minnow Meyer Shank team, had similarly skinned hands from his drive to fourth.

“When Colton started people used to ask if he is better than I was. Nobody asks anymore”

An exhausted Herta said he was “happy to rebound from Barber”, while Newgarden was fulsome in his praise for the Californian. Meanwhile, Herta Sr, who calls the shots for his son from the Andretti pit stand, wryly summed it up on a day when his boy equalled his own record of four career IndyCar wins – at a relatively tender age. “When Colton started in IndyCar people used to ask if he is better than I was,” said Bryan. “Nobody asks anymore.”

Herta’s victory jumps him up to fourth in the standings after two rounds on consecutive weekends, and now the IndyCar circus travels directly to the Texas Motor Speedway for a punishing double-header on the high-banked 1.5-mile oval near Forth Worth this coming weekend. Who knows what will happen? At St Pete, Barber winner Alex Palou only finished an anonymous 17th after winning so comprehensively on his maiden appearance for Ganassi seven days earlier. The 24-year-old Spaniard is another of IndyCar’s new generation pushing the old-timers, including his team-mate Dixon.

Others to watch this year include Pato O’Ward, the highly-rated Mexican who leads the line for Arrow McLaren SP as it knocks on the door to join the big three of Penske, Ganassi and Andretti as a top team. He started at Barber from pole position, but had a tough day at St Pete and was classified 19th after suffering a puncture in a collision with Graham Rahal (son of Bobby).

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There are other riveting stories, perhaps the best being Scott McLaughlin’s full-time commitment to the series after the Kiwi conquered Australia’s premier V8 Supercar tin-top championship for three years in succession. The 27-year-old raced for Penske Down Under and now The Captain has transferred him to one of the best seats in US single-seater racing. No pressure… although the signs are McLaughlin can more than handle it. He was 11th in St Pete and 14th in Barber. He’ll get there.

In contrast, you have to wonder about seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson’s brave switch to IndyCars at 45, driving for Ganassi in a limited programme on the road and street courses. It was a little sad to see the legend out-braking himself at the final turn, nerfing a tyre barrier then needing a tow from a safety vehicle before he could rejoin. The two-time Daytona 500 winner then spun on his own at the fast Turn 3, triggering a safety car.

He made it to the finish in P22 as the final classified runner, five laps down. Johnson has bitten off more than he can chew given the lack of testing that blights racing drivers in this modern era – but I can’t help but respect him for putting his neck on the block. Whatever happens, his reputation as a cast-iron hero of US motor sport is intact.

And what of Romain Grosjean? Credit where it’s due, the Frenchman has shown true grit to come back from that horror crash in Bahrain to finish 10th on his IndyCar debut at Barber and 13th at St Pete. In Florida, he hit the wall three times – in one lap! – and according to the commentators was ready to call it a day. But with encouragement from his Dale Coyne team, he plugged away and was rewarded with another finish. Probably best he’s not racing on the speedways though…

The other thing that struck me watching St Pete was how uncomplicated IndyCar keeps it. On tyres, Firestone offers a black-walled ‘prime’ and a red-walled ‘option’, and each driver must use both in the race. It’s enough to add some strategic intrigue, Newgarden chasing Herta home on softer reds as the leader banked on longer lasting grip from a set of blacks, but it’s straightforward and relatively easy to keep track of.

Herta_Newgarden21Stpete

Herta held off Newgarden with apparent ease despite the pressure

David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Then there’s the push-to-pass boost. Like DRS in F1 and Formula E’s Attack Mode and Fan Boost, IndyCar is not averse to some artificial aid to spice up the racing – but here the system is far less intrusive, more of a test of skill and again, simple to understand. Each driver has an allocation of 150 seconds of a 60bhp boost to use during the race, in bursts of up to 15 seconds.

They can use it to attack or defend, but if they get heavy on the button in the early going they’ll be vulnerable late on. For now, push-to-pass is just for the road and street courses, but in 2023 when a new hybrid engine formula is due the plan is for a system to be used on the ovals too. As long as it’s safe – a significant caveat for any development on the speedways – why not?

The race at St Pete was a genuine blast to the finish. Overtaking was tight and limited mostly to Turn 1, but you felt you were watching something you could believe in. Contrast that to the debacle that was Formula E’s first venture on to a permanent race track in Valencia and the comparison couldn’t be more painful. I’ve tried with Formula E, I really have… but when the FIA and series organisers talk up the skill in ‘energy management’ as a racing asset we should savour you know a series is in trouble. And president Monsieur Todt believes the media is at fault for the continuing apathy Formula E faces from a sceptical public…

What’s the biggest fear for most car buyers when it comes to considering an EV (aside from their relatively astronomical cost)? It’s still range anxiety. And playing on this fear is the premise Formula E’s racing action is centred around, that drivers might run out of spark before the flag? Well that really showcases the strengths of this rapidly evolving technology, doesn’t it? I’d love to be a fly on the wall in manufacturer boardrooms this week.

OK, there’s that blood pressure rising to the boil again. Deep breaths, head between the knees… remember St Pete, remember St Pete. Modern motor racing doesn’t have to tie itself in knots to make its point and be good. Just ask The Captain.