ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — Colton Herta laughed when he saw the tweet from Mario Andretti. Suddenly, the spotlight was on the 21-year-old driver on the eve of a new IndyCar season.
Andretti last week revealed his son, Michael, has applied for an expansion Formula One team. Andretti Global was ready to go, wrote the 1978 F1 champion, and could be on the grid in 2024.
What did that mean for Herta? Oh, just another frenzied round of speculation surrounding the future of the talented Californian.
The Andrettis believe Herta is the next great American F1 driver. Had Michael last year succeeded in purchasing a team, he planned to move Herta to Europe to compete in the global motorsports juggernaut.
When the deal collapsed, Herta publicly admitted he wants a shot in F1. So now he has nowhere to hide and the best Herta can do is focus on Sunday's season-opening IndyCar race through the streets of downtown St. Petersburg. Herta is the defending race winner.
“If I get destroyed in IndyCar the next two years, I don't think (Andretti) would want to take me, so no, this is not a given,” Herta told The Associated Press. “I think maybe at this moment, as far as if they want an American, I'm probably the lead candidate. But I can definitely get that taken away from me.”
Of course, Andretti doesn't actually have an F1 team yet. Andretti has said “control issues” sank last fall's deal with the Sauber team, but Herta told AP it was so close to going through that a plan to get Herta the license he needed to compete had already been put in motion. Herta was going to be the Sauber driver during F1 first practice sessions to earn FIA approval to compete this year.
It was all happening. Until it wasn't.
This time, Herta will sit back and watch how the process unfolds.
“Michael's told me a little bit, but you know, never too much because it's never a certainty," Herta said. “As we saw with Sauber, I think Michael thought that was a done deal and one day everything just switched up. And Michael's not a BS'er, I really trust his word.
"So if he says he can do this and he has the funds in place, I completely believe him and we'll see what happens.”
Expectations for Herta are high as he starts his fourth full season. Although his three wins, five podiums and 391 laps led were all career highs, Herta finished fifth in the final standings — two spots lower than he did in 2020.
He's rated too high to not be a serious title contender and Herta's stock has risen dramatically the last few months: Herta was the closer on his winning class entry at the Rolex 24 at Daytona, then teamed with Jimmie Johnson a week later near the Arctic Circle to lead the United States to a surprising runner-up finish in the Race of Champions.
He is counseled by his father, former IndyCar driver Bryan Herta, who is now both the race strategist for his son and also owner of a successful sports car organization. Bryan Herta once drove for Andretti Autosport himself and has a long business relationship with Michael Andretti.
Bryan Herta told AP that “Michael was as close as you can get to pulling it off” last year with Sauber, but even so, his son never allowed himself to get too invested.
“I was proud of Colton because he never got overly enthusiastic about it, and frankly, he never got to the point where he really had to make a decision,” Bryan Herta told AP. "When it didn't happen, it could have been a crushing disappointment, and it wasn't for him.
“One of the first things he said was ‘Dad, I’ve got one of the best sponsors in the series, I'm with one of the top teams and I can go win a championship this year.'”
Father and son share a similar attitude and are both content in IndyCar. Colton grew up watching his dad race in the series, and although F1 was always his hope, he knew he'd be an IndyCar racer.
Even if a deal did come through to move to Europe, Herta has noted several times that he's young enough to leave for F1 and still come back to a lengthy IndyCar career. Bryan Herta said his son wants to try everything in motorsports, once even asking his dad to find him a Truck Series ride for the NASCAR dirt race at Ohio's Eldora Speedway.
No matter what happens with Andretti's latest bid, there's enough outside of F1 for Herta to drive, and there's enough for him to accomplish in IndyCar, starting Sunday.
“IndyCar is the toughest, coolest, most competitive championship in the world, there's no doubt about it, and for a driver to be able to compete and win in IndyCar is an amazing accomplishment,” Bryan Herta said. “But I think there's a natural lure to F1, right? Is that because its a better championship or the drivers are better? No.
"If there's a chance to try to go there and be the guy, the American, well that's a big challenge and Colton is like any driver in that he'd have to give that serious consideration."
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