Colton Herta: What’s Next for His F1 Future and the #26 IndyCar?

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For Colton Herta, right now there is only one question on everyone’s mind: Formula One. Will he or won’t he?

In a world where the FIA grants a waiver for this generational athlete to obtain super license status, the 22-year-old from Santa Clara, California would find himself returning to Europe to achieve a childhood dream of competing in Formula One. 

Who is Colton Herta?

As an adolescent, Herta showcased his ability to successfully pilot European equipment. At 13, he competed in Pacific Formula F1600 where he won two-thirds of his races. He made the podium for every race that season en route to the series championship. 

Upon signing with Carlin two years later, he placed 3rd in what is known today as the ROKiT F4 British Championship, certified by FIA. The following year, he competed in the 2016 campaigns for the Euroformula Open and Spanish Formula 3 Championships, compiling an average finish of 5th. 

The IndyCar Path

Returning to the United States in 2017, he posted six victories in Indy Lights, including the 16th edition of the Freedom 100. Two seasons in IndyCar’s development series saw Herta finish 3rd and 2nd in the championship. He would then graduate to the NTT Data IndyCar Series in 2019.  

This history of success is what prompted Michael Andretti to call upon Colton Herta as his franchise athlete should the dream of Andretti Global become a reality. McLaren Chief Executive Officer Zak Brown already sees the potential in the young American, signing Herta to a developmental contract to take part in Formula One tests. It was during a test at O Autódromo Internacional do Algarve where he demonstrated his capabilities in driving a Formula One car.

McLaren Team Principal Andreas Seidl said:

“I have to say the team was quite impressed at how Colton was dealing with all these challenges and his professional approach, his physical preparation was enabling him to really keep going throughout these two days, knowing how challenging this can be in a Formula 1 car on a track like Portimao. This allowed him to build up pace gradually, get confidence, and finding always the right balance between taking risk and keeping the car on the track which is important on a test like this…

What comes next? It’s something we will take step by step…That’s where we are.” 

The Historic #26

If Colton Herta eventually makes the move to F1, what happens with his seat? Who would fill the next chapter for Andretti Autosport and their famed #26 Honda Dallara sponsored by Gainbridge? The car has a famed history in IndyCar.  

A lasting legacy that began in the build-up toward the 1998 CART FedEx Championship Series. The majority team owner at the time, Barry Green, signed one of the more characteristic competitors North American automobile racing has ever seen – “The Thrill From West Hill” Paul Tracy.

For the next five seasons, the #26 HONDA would be a staple in the CART FedEx Championship Series, capturing six victories and seventeen podiums before the team moved over to what became known as the IRL IndyCar Series. It was there where Dan Wheldon piloted the #26 Klein Tools Honda-powered Dallara to nine victories over three seasons, including a journey to immortality in winning the 89th running of the Indianapolis 500-mile race.  

Marco Andretti would then drive the #26 for the next seven seasons before Carlos Muñoz, Kurt Busch, Frank Montagny, Takuma Sato, and Zach Veach would each make appearances for the team. Then came the 2021 campaign and Colton Herta.

Who would be chosen?

Who would Michael Andretti call upon to continue the legacy started by Barry Green and Paul Tracy back in 1998 When looking at Andretti Autosport’s developmental ladder, four competitors are deemed worthy of the mantle. 

Sting Ray Robb

Riding off the recent success that was his 2022 Indy Lights campaign, the 21-year-old from Boise, Idaho began his career at the Skip Barber Racing school when he was 14. There, he placed 2nd competing in the school’s 2015-2016 campaign before running three races for Bob Wood in the sixty-third campaign of the ARCA Menards Series West (Utah Motorsports Campus and Meridian Speedway).

Rob would ultimately sign with Juncos Hollinger Racing in 2020 capturing the Indy Pro 2000 series championship. He placed 8th in Indy Lights the following year before signing with Andretti Autosport for the 2022 season. This past year he finished 2nd in the championship with an average finish of 4th.

Hunter McElrea

Before coming to the United States, the 22-year-old New Zealander competed in Queensland’s Formula Ford 1600 Series and the Australian Formula Ford Series. He compiled a 62% win rate and made the podium 76% of the time en route to the 2018 series championship.

Upon his arrival to the United States, he signed with Pabst Racing where he began moving up the Road To Indy Developmental Ladder. In the 2019 F2000 National Championship, he had four wins and was on the podium 80% of the time, finishing second in the championship standings. 

McElrea would go on to compete for the next two seasons for Pabst in Indy Pro 2000. Once again racking up wins and podiums before moving to Andretti Autosport to compete in Indy Lights. In the 2022 Indy Lights Campaign, McElrea earned Rookie of the Year honors along with two victories and seven podiums.

Christian Rasmussen

Another 22-year-old, this competitor from Copenhagen, Denmark made his presence known by competing in the Danish Formula Ford Championship and the F4 Danish Championship. There he posted a combined total of 12 victories en route to a 2nd and 3rd (twice) in standings. 

Upon moving to the United States, the Dane entered the Road To Indy developmental ladder competing for Jay Howard Driver Development in the F2000 National Championship. Throughout two seasons in the F2000 National Championship, he won a third of his races and was on the podium over half the time. Those results secured him 3rd place in the championship his first year followed by the championship. 

The team elevated Rasmussen to the Indy Pro 2000 championship for the 2021 campaign. Over the 18 rounds, he compiled earned 12 podiums and three victories, taking the series championship. He signed with Andretti Autosport for the 2022 Indy Lights campaign, where he continued progressing nicely. Two victories and five podiums en route to placing 6th in the season’s championship standings.

Matthew Brabham

The conservative pick. As with Colton Herta, Matthew Brabham is from a racing family. The son of Geoff Brabham, who in turn was the son of Sir Jack Brabham. Representing a dual nationality of both the United States and the Commonwealth of Australia, the 28-year-old has showcased a success rate across multiple automobile racing disciplines from all across the world.

Competing for Cape Motorsports in an alliance with Wayne Taylor Racing, Brabham placed 3rd in the 2012 campaign. He then captured the 2012 U.S. F2000 National Championship by seven points over California’s Spencer Pigot. Along with sporadic part-time appearances in Indy Lights, Formula E, and various sports car and supercar competitions, Brabham won the 2018, 2019, and 2021 Championship in the Stadium Super Trucks Series. 

This success re-caught the eye of Michael Andretti, who welcomed Brabham back to his franchise for the 2021 Indy Lights campaign. He posted victories at St. Petersburg and Gateway finishing 3rd in the championship. 

How might 2023 unfold for Colton Herta?

By the time the checkered flag falls at the 2023 Firestone Grand Prix of Monterrey, should Colton Herta still be competing in the NTT Data IndyCar Series, it would be a major surprise if he were not to achieve the required number of points to obtain an FIA Super License.  

From a statistical standpoint, there should not be a reason as to why both Gainbridge or Honda would deem neither of the aforementioned four Indy Lights competitors worthy of becoming Herta’s successor. At the very least, it would provide each of their respective Indy Lights campaigns as a job interview for the famed #26.

Though an opportunity at a possible grant exception has more than likely been rendered nulled, does this mean we won’t be seeing an American competing on the world’s premier motorsports stage anytime soon? 

An American in F1

The answer – Of course, we will! 

While Colton Herta may not be an American driver groomed in the sense of Logan Sargeant and Williams, he has showcased to the world that he is more than worthy of the opportunity. 

It makes one think of the possible pathways that IndyCar drivers can take. Pathways echoing the respective journeys of Michael Andretti, Jacques Villeneuve, Alex Zanardi, and Sebastien Bourdais.   

Unlike Michael Andretti’s 1993 Formula One campaign, Colton Herta’s upbringing has showcased that he is more than willing to make the sacrifices needed to relocate to Europe. Ready to fully commit to the competition wherever his talents may end up taking him.  

If his aforementioned test in McLaren’s MCL35M means anything, it is not a question of if, it is merely a question of when?

Featured Image Credit: Chris Owens