Colton Herta’s appointment to a fifth Andretti Autosport entry in 2020 caps an enigmatic season for the second-generation driver who reached incredible heights while also falling behind his fellow NTT IndyCar Series rookies in several key metrics, suggesting a lack of consistency that may be rectified next year.
Without needing to include the results of the season’s final race on Sunday at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, Herta’s place in Indy car history is secure. Since supplanting Graham Rahal as the youngest race winner, Herta crawled up the list of most pole positions by a rookie and will end the year tied with Tomas Scheckter, who started first on three occasions in 2002.
He’s also on an exclusive list of 25 drivers who’ve won races in their rookie seasons, joining such luminaries as Scott Dixon, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Sebastien Bourdais and his teammate Alexander Rossi.
Yet, even with all the accolades, Herta’s in-season stats haven’t necessarily risen to the same level. Through 16 races, he’s led laps in three — half the number of Chip Ganassi Racing rookie Felix Rosenqvist. Additionally, Herta’s laps led count pales next to that of Santino Ferrucci, whose dominance at World Wide Technology Raceway boosted his total. Rosenqvist has led 10 more than Herta at 71.
The top-10 and top-five finish columns tell a similar story, with Herta’s seven top 10s matching Ferrucci but falling two short of Rosenqvist’s nine. Herta’s two top fives slot him between Ferrucci with three and Marcus Ericsson with two but well below Rosenqvist who has five.
Even racking up completed laps hasn’t been smooth sailing for Herta. His 78% completion rate is well short of Ericsson’s 83%, Rosenqvist’s 92% and Ferrucci’s 99%.
One possible culprit for Herta’s inconsistency is the season-long instability of his team. Harding Steinbrenner Racing’s trouble was made clear when Patricio O’Ward asked to be released from his contract — a shocking twist that downsized the team from two full-time entries to one. Herta learned about it on social media.
Winning the season’s second round at COTA didn’t seem to help the team financially as much as was necessary, with sponsorship from GESS International going as quickly as it came. Following his third pole triumph of 2019 at Laguna Seca, Herta elucidated just how much the team struggled in the latter part of the season.
“Obviously it’s been a roller coaster with a lot of questions about the team and the financial stability, but they worked hard,” Herta said after beating five of IndyCar’s finest to the final NTT P1 Award of 2019. “Mike (Harding) worked hard. George (Michael Steinbrenner IV) worked hard, the whole team … worked hard to find the money to keep the team going, and honestly, yeah, there was a point in the season around Mid-Ohio that we weren’t going to show up at Gateway. We weren’t sure.
“And then everybody stuck it up and put in the money that we needed to and we signed some good deals — obviously Capstone being the most important to bring us from Mid-Ohio onward or Toronto onwards through the rest of the season. Very grateful for them and they’re the whole reason that I was able to finish out the season.”
Capstone Turbine was one of the positives that came out of the brief partnership with GESS and, as noted by Herta, the company stayed loyal the team and gave its car consistent branding throughout the second half of 2019.
Bringing Harding Steinbrenner under the Andretti umbrella and formally pairing Herta with proven drivers like Hunter-Reay and Rossi won’t necessarily improve the team’s technical standing, but it will certainly improve the team’s financial situation. Best of all for IndyCar’s only rookie winner this year, the Harding-Steinbrenner-Andretti combination is being referred to as a multiyear agreement.
With such varied stats in his debut season, a clear goal of the new entity — dubbed Andretti Harding Steinbrenner Autosport — will be to bring consistency to Herta’s performances where clear gaps exist. After his breakthrough victory, he had a string of four finishes outside the top 20, including a last-place result in the 103rd Running of the Indianapolis 500 due to a mechanical failure in the opening laps.
His top-10 success rate of 44% in a typical field of 22 cars represents just one of the many metrics that could use an improvement. Yet, with Herta also having shown the ability to win races and poles, adding stability to his team could go a long way in molding the teenager into a perennial championship contender.
While the news of Andretti’s expansion to include Herta benefits the driver and his backers, it also raises questions about a single team fielding nearly 25% of the field. With a fifth entry, the Andretti juggernaut will as big as Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing put together. As the transition from 2019 to 2020 begins in earnest after the current season’s champion is crowned, the paddock’s reaction to Andretti’s expansion and addition of Herta will demonstrate just how dangerous the combination is perceived to be.
For Herta, it may just be the move of his career — one that’s, amazingly, just getting started.