INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Colton Herta's victory in last year's Indianapolis Grand Prix was supposed to catapult him into IndyCar championship contention.
The 23-year-old Californian has instead been snakebitten by one frustration after another during a 12-month winless streak — one he hopes to break Saturday on Indy's 14-turn, 2.439-mile road course.
“It’s always been a great race for us, two podiums and a win there,” the defending race champion said earlier this week. “Obviously, we've had strong cars in the past. We’ve always qualified well.”
Last May, he also raced harder and better than everyone else on the grand prix grid.
Herta made the early switch to rain tires, saved his Honda-powered No. 26 car as it started sliding, overcame two late pit stops and eventually pulled away in the rain from three-time race winner Simon Pagenaud.
Afterward, the exuberant Herta called it the most difficult race of his career but his challenges were just beginning.
Two days before the Indianapolis 500, he crashed in practice. On race day, he finished 30th when a bad throttle sensor knocked him out after 129 laps.
Four races later, after taking his second pole of the season, Herta's head sock broke and his hair impaired his vision as finished second in Toronto. He managed only one top-five finish in the final seven races, slipping to 10th in the final standings for the worst result in his four full IndyCar seasons.
All the while there was rampant speculation about a possible move to Formula One until Herta signed a four-year contract extension with Andretti Autosport in October. The deal coupled with other offseason moves left Herta as the longest-tenured driver on one of IndyCar's top teams and it was one reason he opted to continue driving for Michael Andretti.
“It’s a unique situation and the role — he was lucky when he arrived to have teammates like Ryan Hunter-Reay and James Hinchliffe and (Alexander) Rossi — and was able to rely on good, experienced teammates,” Herta's father, manager and agent, Bryan, said in March. ”That was all very valuable, but now he has to be the leader and that’s interesting."
In his new role, though, he's being overshadowed by the other guys.
The younger Herta completed just 49 of 100 laps before contact with Will Power sent him into the wall at the season opener in St. Petersburg.
While teammates Kyle Kirkwood and Romain Grosjean took the top two spots in Long Beach — and Grosjean followed that with another runner-up finish in Alabama — Herta arrived in Indy looking to snap a 16-race victory drought — the longest of his IndyCar career and tied for his longest at any racing level since he left Europe in 2017.
“It’s obviously less than ideal,” said Herta, who is 10th in the standings. “We’ve been in the hunt. Obviously, we know how to win races. This weekend’s the best place to start it. Hopefully we can get a win here. But it is annoying to have basically a year without a win.”
Herta managed just one lap in the first practice session Friday because of a mechanical problem. He did make it through the entire second practice round, though only with the 15th-fastest time.
Could Herta's fortunes finally change Saturday on the same course and in similar weather conditions as last year? Only if duplicates last year's surprise win after qualifying 14th — the same spot he will start from Saturday after posting a fast lap of 1 minute, 9.8375 seconds.
“We know we’re good,” Herta said when asked about the possibility of rain Saturday. “We’ve never been slow here. We’ve always had great cars here. Most of the time we’ve been in contention for at least a podium. It’s a place that I feel very comfortable coming to.”
Grosjean also is trying to end a winless skid.
The former Formula One driver from France enters the weekend fifth in points after back-to-back runner-up finishes. He's finished second five times and has four additional top-five finishes but no victories in 37 career IndyCar starts.
Perhaps win No. 1 will come on the same course where he finished second twice in 2021 as an IndyCar rookie. Grosjean will start 18th.
“I think I’m going to finally win a race so the question is stop being asked,” he said. “Barber was close, close in St. Pete. We’re here. The win is going to come whenever it comes. If you finish every time like this, it’s going to be good for the championship.”
Four-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves' hopes for a strong qualifying run took a hit just 21 minutes into the second practice session Friday when his engine started smoking.
Castroneves said he attempted to turn off the car before rolling to a stop. His Meyer Shank Racing Crew scrambled to put the No. 6 car back together in time for qualifying but Castroneves was never in contention to advance beyond the first round. He will start 26th on the 27-car grid.
"Better now than tomorrow, right?" Castronevees said. “It was a brand new engine."
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