Colton Herta’s year of firsts in the NTT IndyCar Series continued in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin where he earned his first career pole position by improving more than his competitors from practice to qualifying, but his opportunity for success at Road America was diminished as the 55-lap race pressed on.
Entering Saturday’s qualifying session at the 14-turn natural terrain road course, the young Harding Steinbrenner Racing driver held the third-fastest practice lap. His 1:43.1697, set in Practice 3, was 0.0491 seconds slower than Alexander Rossi’s best and 0.2872 seconds slower than the fastest lap of the weekend to that point, executed by Josef Newgarden also in Practice 3.
Herta sailed through qualifying, topping Group 1, Round 2 and the Firestone Fast Six. Though it was the third round’s time that secured him his first NTT P1 Award, his Group 1 pace represented the fastest lap of the weekend due to a massive improvement of nearly eight-tenths of a second over his best practice lap.
A comparison of the track’s 15 timing and scoring sections demonstrates that Herta improved in 12 of them, picking up 0.7988 seconds when practice gave way to qualifying. His most improved section was just after the alternate start-finish line used in qualifying, which includes Turn 14. There, Herta picked up more than a tenth of a second. He had similar success in the next two sections, incorporating the front stretch between the final corner and the traditional start-finish line, illuminating how critical a strong launch onto the unusually long main straight is.
The only areas of the track where Herta lost time compared to his best practice lap were Turn 3, the carousel and Turn 13 near the end of a lap. Despite being slower, the sections’ time loss totaled just 0.0846 seconds, making his net gain around the 4.014-mile track a healthy 0.7142 seconds — still the biggest practice-to-qualifying improvement among the 23 drivers.
By optimizing 80% of his lap to such a degree relative to his best practice effort, Herta easily outpaced his Group 1 competition and stayed on top for the next two rounds of qualifying, becoming the youngest pole winner in the sport’s history.
Starting from the pole position for the 220.77-mile race, Herta controlled the pace as the field approached the start zone. While he might have been confident in his speed based on his qualifying performance, fellow front-row occupant Rossi looked to the outside entering Turn 1 and got ahead of Herta through Turn 2, completing the pass in Turn 3 and going on to lead 54 laps en route to his second victory of the year.
Herta fell back to the second position and might have stayed there had he not started the race on used Firestone Firehawk alternate tires. Struggling for grip, the 19-year-old gave up additional positions to Will Power and Graham Rahal before pitting on Lap 13. Things only got worse when Harding’s fueler had trouble filling the car on the No. 88 Honda’s first pit lane visit of the day. Herta never fully recovered and ran mostly in the eighth position during his second stint and sixth during his third, both on primary black tires.
A final pit stop on Lap 42 saw Herta put on a set of sticker red tires, but falloff caused him to be uncompetitive as the race reached its conclusion. Despite being consistently in fifth from Lap 45, he lost positions to Scott Dixon, Felix Rosenqvist and James Hinchcliffe on the race’s final lap, dropping him to eighth at the checkered flag.
Even though Herta was unable to convert his maiden pole into a victory or podium finish, he managed to earn his first top-10 result since his historic victory at Circuit of The Americas in March. Rossi, meanwhile, proved his prowess by lapping the 4-mile circuit with an average lap time 0.8672 seconds quicker than Herta’s.
“There’s a bunch of whole different, weird things about his driving style that shouldn’t be fast but are extremely fast,” Herta told assembled media about his pseudo-teammate Rossi after qualifying Saturday. “Even in the race, he’s driving the same and not wearing the tires more than anyone else. It is quite incredible.”
Herta has until July 14 to potentially learn Rossi’s unique method for generating speed before he’s making his Honda Indy Toronto debut in an Indy car in the year’s final race on a temporary street circuit.