Herta: “Once or twice a year you have a car that dominant”

St. Petersburg winner Colton Herta says his dominant fourth NTT IndyCar Series victory was a result of strong pitstops, good strategy – and a perfect Andretti Autosport-Honda.

Herta: “Once or twice a year you have a car that dominant”

Herta led the second round of the season for 97 of the 100 laps, holding off a strong run from Team Penske-Chevrolet’s Josef Newgarden.

He said afterward: “You know, I think you have a few times, maybe once or twice a year, where you have a car that dominant, where no matter what you're doing, it just does exactly what you want it to do. You could be saving as much fuel as you want or going as hard as you want and it just produces the killer lap times.

“We had one of those days, and it was awesome.”

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The 21-year-old from Valencia, California, added later, “I never really doubted myself or the team today,” going on to explain that both qualifying – where he took pole by a quarter-second on a 60sec track – and the morning warm-up that he also led, had confirmed all he needed to know ahead of the race.

“I think it kind of covered all grounds, right?” he said. “We knew we could get up to speed super fast from qualifying, so we knew we would be good on restarts and the start.

“And then we knew we had that long run pace from warmup this morning; we got to run quite a bit of laps. So I was very confident.

“I was very confident from [St. Petersburg race] last year, too, we had such good cars. Going into this weekend I knew even if we had to go back to our 2020 setup, it was still going to be a rocketship.”

In the first stint, in which he was using Firestone’s softer alternate compound, Herta pulled a 2.5sec gap over the Meyer Shank Racing-Honda of Jack Harvey and then maintained it while saving fuel. He was then able to respond when Newgarden took over second place from Harvey as the MSR car’s reds (alternates) faded.

But it was the second stint, when both he and Newgarden were running scrubbed blacks, that showed how much Herta had in hand. By the time they both made their second and last pitstops at the end of Lap 68, Herta had pulled an 11sec margin over the Penske driver who had won the previous two St. Pete races.

“Obviously you're pretty hyperfocused all the time in the car, but when you're in the lead you just have that little bit more drive to find those last few hundredths each lap,” he said. “We were actually saving fuel quite big and once we got 25 [laps] to go, we didn't have to hit a [fuel mileage] number at all because we saved enough fuel. Obviously yellows [full course cautions] helped.

“I don't want to say we were cruising but we just got that momentum going to where I knew I was lifting every lap to save fuel and I knew exactly how hard to hit the brake pedal. So it wasn't really coming easy, but obviously it's easier when you have that good of a car, and when it's able to save fuel and go that fast it's amazing.

I can't say enough about the whole team effort, everyone at Gainbridge, Group 1001 and all of my guys that did a fantastic job on all the stops. I know that first stop might have been a little nerve-racking for them, but we got it done.”

Herta said the quality of the car is also what enabled him to look after his reds in the first stint while still saving fuel – a technique that involves putting a lot of lateral load through the tire by carrying more rolling speed through the corner.

“Right, yeah, that's the difficult thing about saving fuel on the red tires,” he agreed. “Obviously you're lifting [off the throttle] so you're braking later, you're braking a little bit harder, which means you’re more susceptible to rear locking, which absolutely destroys the tires. Plus you're trying to carry that speed through the corners more to make up for lifting early on. So obviously you're using a lot more of the tire.

“I think we just had the perfect balance. In normal places you would want a little bit of oversteer – that's the best way to save fuel and go fast. But for here I thought it was going to be understeer, especially for that first stint on the new reds to get them to the end.

“It ended up being the right decision with the way that we went because I was just able to thrash on the front tires and not even worry about the rear tires. It made it a lot easier for me.”

In the final stint, there were two restarts and on both occasions Newgarden was able to use his softer reds to stay threateningly close to the tail of Herta’s #26 Gainbridge machine, which was now running on fresh blacks, as the softer compound usually comes up to temperature sooner. But Herta said the opposite was true for his car.

“I found something early on that I thought the red tires might have been a little bit worse for restarts,” he said. “I think [the two compounds] were more equal than we have seen in the past because on the first restart [during the first stint] I was on reds, he was on blacks, and he was able to stay really close. And on the restarts when I was on blacks, I felt the tires come up to temp really quick with the blacks rather than the reds.”

Regarding the last stint, Herta commented: “Obviously we saw Josef was really fast on the red tires early on, and then we kind of saw that crossover point where I was able to start pulling out some good laps and his tires were starting to fall off.”

“You know, what an amazing weekend for me, and obviously for the whole team, bringing this package of dampers and obviously just having the racecars how they've been is spectacular.”

Paying tribute to his team and crew, Herta commented: “We crashed it two times last week at Barber and then obviously constant brushes with the wall here and [bent] toe links and getting everything back to normal. So they've done such an incredible job for me, and yeah, can't say enough about them and got me in the position to win today.”

 

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