Thursday, October 10, 2019

IndyCar Wrap-Up: Harding Steinbrenner Racing's 2019 Season

The fourth IndyCar team preview is the first team that won a race in 2019 and it actually won twice, it is Harding Steinbrenner Racing. The little team that had a meteoric rise in 2017 with a top ten finish on debut in the Indianapolis 500 and a top five in its second race ever saw a decline in 2018 but the injection of a new partner and one of IndyCar's brightest stars took the team to the top even if it did not cure all the financial ills.

Say hello to the future, his name is Colton Herta
Colton Herta
Magnificent. That is the only word for Herta's rookie season. He became the youngest winner in IndyCar history in the second race of the season, the third start of his career and he did it before he turned 19 years old. There were rough days but he won three pole positions, closed his rookie season with another victory and ended up seventh in the championship.

What objectively was his best race?
His two victories at Austin and Laguna Seca.

Herta's historic victory at Circuit of the Americas came through a bit of fortune and a bit of speed. Austin was a race Herta lucked into but he put himself in a position to capitalize on an opening. Herta was a distant third to Will Power and Alexander Rossi but he was on an island. He was third and was not challenged. For the first half of the race, he was keeping up with Power and Rossi and then those two pulled away.

Herta made a pit stop at the right time and it set him up to inherit the lead of an IndyCar race a week before his 19th birthday. The moment, in his third career start, could have seized him, especially with past champions Ryan Hunter-Reay and Josef Newgarden breathing down his neck for the restart but Herta left those two in his dust. The final stint showed no sign of nerves. It ended in glory.

At Laguna Seca, Herta started on pole position and ran away with it for the most part. He led 83 of 90 laps and he faced pressure in the first stint of the race from Scott Dixon and in the final stint of the race from Will Power. He had the two drivers with the most victories this decade breathing down his neck for at least 60 of 90 laps at Laguna Seca and Herta didn't buckle. He was clean and took a convincing victory.

What subjectively was his best race?
It is a toss up between Austin and Laguna Seca but let's talk about another race, Road America, because that was his most active race. Austin was one where Herta had speed and didn't have to use it. Road America was where Herta started on pole position, the first of his career.

He lost the lead immediately but remained in second and had to hold onto the car on degrading alternate tires. He lost time but bounced back on the second stint before the team shod his car with alternate tires again. Herta charged forward but started to fall behind and he found himself trying to fend off Scott Dixon, Felix Rosenqvist and James Hinchcliffe in the closing laps. Herta held on as long as he could but he was cooked in the final two laps.

It was an eighth place finish and part of it should fall on his team. The alternate tires were done after ten laps on the first stint and yet the team chose those tires for the final 15-lap stint. Herta was always going to lose time but Herta wrestled his car and brought it to the line with a result he can be disappointed about but one he does not have to hang his head over.

What objectively was his worst race?
It is the Indianapolis 500 where his gearbox broke after three laps and what was a fifth place starting position on Indianapolis 500 debut turned into a 33rd-place finish before the kid could break a sweat.

What subjectively was his worst race?
Indianapolis sucked for Herta but the race Herta let get away from him was Texas. Herta was in the top five for most of the time and he was again running with the big boys. The problem was Herta got a little too aggressive at a time when he had to bring the car home in one piece and in a good finishing position. He entered Texas having not had a top ten result in six consecutive races and he had retired in four consecutive races from Barber through the Indianapolis 500.

Herta made a bold move on Scott Dixon into turn three and the two cars made contact. Was the contact solely on Herta's shoulders? No. Dixon didn't leave much room to someone who had already claimed the inside but it was a case where Herta could have waited until the door was a little more open. There were still 20 laps to go. If he had not gotten another opportunity fifth would have been fantastic for him. Herta had a chance to get out of the hole and he dug himself a little deeper that night.

Colton Herta's 2019 Statistics
Championship Position: 7th (420 points)
Wins: 2
Podiums: 2
Top Fives: 3
Top Tens: 8
Laps Led: 144
Poles: 3
Fast Sixes: 5
Fast Twelves: 9
Average Start: 6.9375
Average Finish: 13.235

An Early Look Ahead
The good news is Harding Steinbrenner Racing is being absorbed into the Andretti Autosport stable and Herta will now be an official member of that team.

IndyCar is kind of losing a team in that it is losing an operation that independently ran a car but it is keeping a car on the grid and after seeing all that Herta accomplished this season with HSR, a team that struggled to make ends meet, you have to be excited about what he could accomplish in 2020.

If Herta can do all this with HSR what will he do with Andretti Autosport? He will turn 20 years old in between the first and second races next season and at 20 years old he is going to be a championship challenger. This could be a case of recency bias but I don't think it is because look at what Herta did for the entirety of 2019.

He should have made the Fast Six at St. Petersburg but got a penalty. He won Austin and Laguna Seca. He had three pole positions, tied with Will Power and Simon Pagenaud for most of the season. He made it to the second round of qualifying on nine of ten occasions. He made the Fast Six five times, only Scott Dixon, Alexander Rossi, Felix Rosenqvist and Josef Newgarden had more. His average starting position was fifth best behind only Dixon, Rossi, Newgarden and Power.

What cost Herta in 2019 were mechanical issues. Fuel pressure issues cost him at Barber. The gearbox broke on him three laps into the Indianapolis 500. He had another mechanical issue bite him late at Iowa while he was in the top ten. Add to it that James Hinchcliffe drove into him at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and the only results you can lay at the feet of Herta are Long Beach, when he hit the barrier while in the top ten and Pocono, where he had an accident while in the top ten.

Herta did not make many mistakes in his rookie year. Hopefully, the integration into the Andretti stable means those gremlins pop up less. If those mechanical issues do not come up and he continues what he was doing in 2019, it feels like he will be in the championship conversation.