Thursday, February 21, 2019

2019 IndyCar Team Preview: Harding Steinbrenner Racing

The seventh IndyCar team preview has us looking at a team that really has turned into a bit of a villain in the latter days of the IndyCar off-season. Harding Steinbrenner Racing opened up the 2018-19 offseason with a bang announcing a two-car effort with 2018 Indy Lights champion Patricio O'Ward and 2018 Indy Lights vice-champion Colton Herta, in essence becoming Andretti Autosport's B-Team. The day before testing commenced from Austin it was announced that O'Ward was leaving the team due to lack of funding and now many have accosted HSR for failing to live up to its own hype. It will have the difficult task of winning back fans with a driver that some have soured on because of the perception that nepotism won out over ability.

2018 Harding Racing Review
Wins: 0
Best Finish: 9th (Sonoma)
Poles: 0
Championship Finishes: 21st (Gabby Chaves), 29th (Conor Daly), 31st (Patricio O'Ward), 37th (Colton Herta)

2019 Driver:

Colton Herta - #88 Harding Steinbrenner Racing Honda
At 14 years old, Herta was in U.S. F2000 and in 12 starts he had six top ten finishes with his best finish being fifth on two occasions. He was 15th in the championship, finishing ten points behind Austin Cindric despite missing the first two races. In 2015, Herta headed to England and ran in the MSA Formula Championship, now known as the F4 British Championship. He was teammate to current McLaren driver Lando Norris and Norris won the title but Herta finished third in the championship with Ricky Collard splitting the Carlin teammates. Norris won eight races to Herta's four.

The 2016 season was split between BRDC British Formula Three and the Euroformula Open Championship with the latter being his main draw. He was third in that championship behind Leonardo Pulcini and Ferdinand Habsburg with his four victories coming in a weekend sweep at Red Bull Ring, one victory at Jerez and one victory at Barcelona. In England, he made six starts and won a race on the Brands Hatch grand prix circuit while he had a pair of thirds and a sixth at Oulton Park.

Herta returned to American for 2017 to run in Indy Lights and he opened the season with a second and a first at St. Petersburg and a victory in the second Barber race gave him two victories from his first four starts. However, he would not win another race for the remainder of the season despite winning five more pole positions. He did pick up four more podium finishes and was third in the championship behind Indy Lights-experienced drivers Kyle Kaiser and Santiago Urrutia.

For 2018, he had nine podium finishes from the first ten races, including four consecutive victories with a sweep of the races on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, the Freedom 100 and a victory at Road America. However, his season turned at Toronto where a collision with the barrier in the first race broke his wrist and he was not 100% in the second race. He would be fine for the rest of the season but could not win another race while O'Ward won four of the final five and took the championship by 44 points over Herta.

Numbers to Remember:
17: Starts it took for Bryan Herta to get his first IndyCar podium finish (second at Cleveland in 1995).

71: Starts it took for Bryan Herta to get his first IndyCar victory (Laguna Seca 1998).

57.57: Percentage of podium finishes in Herta's 33 Indy Lights starts.

24,381: Days between the only victory for the #88 car in American open-wheel racing history and the St. Petersburg season opener. Al Keller won a NASCAR Speedway Division race on June 8, 1952 at Lakewood Speedway outside Atlanta.

How things have changed after O'Ward and HSR split the day before testing began. I was going to say the goal for Herta should be to beat his teammate because if he does that than he is either getting a lot of good results or something went horribly wrong for O'Ward. Something did go horribly wrong for O'Ward and now Herta doesn't have a measuring stick within the team. He is still going have to a tough rookie class to contend with but while Felix Rosenqvist is with Ganassi, Marcus Ericsson is with Schmidt Peterson and Santino Ferrucci is with Dale Coyne, Herta is still on a fairly new team with no pedigree of success. If Herta had a teammate we would at least get a head-to-head comparison in case the team is off the pace compared to the rest of the grid.

The good news for Herta is the preseason test at Austin shows that Harding Steinbrenner Racing has found some speed. He topped three of the four sessions and was second in the other. Herta ended with the top time of the test. All four rookies had encouraging results at the Austin test but Herta's confidence probably increased the most of the four after an entire offseason of uncertainty and the bad buzz that hung around the team leading into the test.

I was going to write that Herta needs to take back some of the luster. Many pegged Herta to be the championship favorite for Indy Lights in 2018 but O'Ward stole the show. It is not that O'Ward handily beat Herta in Indy Lights. Herta was leading the championship after ten races but one poor weekend at Toronto, where he also broke his wrist, gave O'Ward the championship lead and Herta could not retake momentum in the final five races.

O'Ward did not make mistakes and Herta made plenty of mistakes in his two Indy Lights seasons. Herta cannot afford to do that in IndyCar. There were a lot of races where Herta had the pace but stepped over the boundary and it caught him out. He had better control in 2018 despite the few occasions where he did tear up the car but with the increased power of an IndyCar it would not be a surprise if Herta has a hard time handling it and makes a mistake or two while he tries to get used to wrestling something of this magnitude.

Now that he does not have a teammate Herta should aim for six or seven top ten finishes and six or seven top ten starts but more importantly Herta needs to get laps. He is only going to be 18 years old when the season begins. He could spend another two years in Indy Lights truth be told. There is a lot of career ahead of him and it is important that he completes laps and gains the experience necessary in his youth to set him on the right course for the future. He could be in IndyCar for the next two decades. He is not going to make his career in this season but this year sets up the dominoes.

I was going to write that the one concern with this team carrying into 2019 is funding. Harding Racing was out of money last year and ran with some older equipment compared to the rest of the grid. The partnership with George Michael Steinbrenner IV was thought to have been the saving grace but that only got Herta on the grid and the great ambition to field the top two drivers from Indy Lights proved to be a bust. An added emphasis will be on Herta not getting into accidents especially if the team cannot afford spares. This may reign him in a bit and instead of pushing to qualify in the top six he could be starting races 12th or 13th or he may settle for seventh in a race even if sixth is right in front of him.

The first test from Circuit of the Americas shows the team has pace and Herta's stock shot up immensely after two days. One test can be misleading and there will be rough patches as he is a teenager and there hasn't been a teenager that has entered IndyCar and never put a wheel wrong. Herta will have bad days but he is ready for this level and could turn this opportunity into great success for a developing team.

The 2019 NTT IndyCar Series season opens on Sunday March 10th with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. NBCSN's coverage will begin at 1:00 p.m. ET.