At any given race circuit, there is often a list of drivers that will standout right out of the gate as a favorite or simply have an act for the circuit. Others take awhile or in some instances, can never mesh well with the circuit.
For Colton Herta, the Nashville Street Circuit looked to be a love at first sight – until it didn’t. During last year’s inaugural Big Machine Music City Grand Prix, the Andretti Autosport driver adapted to the challenging 2.1-mile street course with ease. He set blistering laps and haddrivers the leg up on the competition, with several struggling to get around without incident.
Herta led the field to green in the attrition, caution-plagued contest and, by far, was the class of the field. That began to change when a pit strategy propelled Marcus Ericsson, who was involved in an earlier incident that saw him go airborne, to the front.
For the first time, Herta was now the challenger instead of the man being challenged. As the laps began to wear down, Herta pushed his No. 26 Gainbridge Honda to the absolute limit, trying to force Ericsson’s No. 8 Bryant Honda into a mistake.
Then on Lap 74, in front of a strong Tennessee crowd, the sun went down not only for the area but also to Herta’s afternoon. His Honda slammed the turn 9 wall, ending his afternoon and brought the race to a halt. The crowd was stunned and so was the entire paddock as once again, the pressure bit the highly touted racer.
“Air Ericsson” went to to capture what was at one point, an improbable win, while Herta was beyond heartbroken – classified with a gut-punching 19th on what could have been a banner weekend.
Fast forward to the series returning to the “Music City.” Herta is trying to cling to a top-10 championship result with four rounds remaining, beyond contention to capture the NTT IndyCar Series championship as he trails Will Power by a stagnant 146 points.
“Realistically we’re not going to win the championship. It’s too far out of reach. Maybe if we have an amazing string of the rest of the races we can maybe creep into the top 5, but that would be a pretty big ask,” said Herta. “I’ll just kind of use the end of this season to focus on the next season and kind of butt through it.”
This was a result of yet another woeful weekend that saw Herta retire with gearbox issues in the Gallagher Grand Prix at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. A track where he won a chaotic race in the rain back in May, which happens to be his only win this season. It also happens to be one of the only positives in what has been a brutal year for Herta and the entire Andretti Autosport organization.
The power is there, the speed is there, but the finishes have not been on his side. As for the gear box, the issue remained unclear when he spoke with the team prior to speaking with the press.
Herta said the best he can do in the closing portion of the championship trail is finish in the top five or better from here on out, starting at the track that got away from him before heading to Gateway, Portland and Laguna Seca. The latter circuit was his playground the previous two races where he won in dominating fashion.
“The most important thing is we’ve had speed pretty much everywhere we’ve gone. I think the Indy 500 was kind of the outlier where we weren’t great, qualified 25th, and weren’t that great in the race,” said Herta during this week’s race preview media conference.
“I think everywhere else I’ve been very comfortable with the car and very confident, but yeah, for one reason or another, we just can’t get a roll going. I thought after Toronto we would get it going, then we had an issue in Iowa. We weren’t really incredibly fast in Iowa anyway. I think we still could have finished in the top 10.
“Then obviously come to Indy and leading the race and that happens. I’d like to just finish out the season and just be in the top 5 in every race and just get kind of the ball really for what we need with no more issues and no problems and just finish off the year strong.”
This year’s race in Nashville will see some changes as the layout underwent key upgrades. The restart zone will no longer be at the narrow start/finish line, but downhill from Korean Veterans Memorial Bridge, the area where the race started.
Also, the treacherous Turn 9 has been opened up a bit so drivers get a better vantage point. Finally, Turn 5 has been narrowed 50 feet to accommodate additional built suites.
Regarding how did Herta navigated around the street course so well, he isn’t too sure if there is a secret technique. But braking at certain corners does many wonders for a blistering lap time.
“I think you can make up a lot of time by braking for that Turn 9 and Turn 4,” said Herta. “It’s quite difficult because the car is unloaded and that right front tire is very unloaded so it’s easy to lock that tire. If you get a good balance, you can probably make up most of the time through there, those two corners.”
Above anything else, this weekend will both mark a grand prix filled with threatening weather and the debut of Firestone’s sustainable alternate tire. Instead of the red wall tires, it will be light green as part of the series attempt of being more eco-friendly with its natural rubber guayule.
The ultimate test will certainly be during Friday’s opening practice (4:15 p.m. ET on Peacock) where Herta said the new tires shouldn’t be an issue just as long as he and the other 25 competitors find consistency.
“I don’t know what’s different about the tire. I know maybe the sidewall construction is a little bit different,” Herta on the new tire. “But beyond that, I don’t know about surface area of the tire, so I don’t know, maybe the media knows, but I don’t really know the difference in it right now.”
One thing Herta would like to avoid is another race weekend with tire inconsistency, a subject matter he was blunt about last weekend at Indianapolis. He spoke with the folks from Firestone where he learned they found something wrong, but like the fate of the gearbox, there were still unclear answers.
“We do Firestone reports after the race weekend, so I sent them my report on my feelings of what happened and the feeling I was getting inside the car,” Herta commented. “Hopefully it helps them kind of figure out what was going on there so nobody has to deal with that in the future.”
The playing field may bulk up after Herta’s success, something that he will find difficult to replicate due to the amount of data across the paddock. More so, many of them are in their second rodeo, hoping they can go toe-to-toe with the 22-year-old. He highlighted how things can change in each session where he captured the pole in superb fashion.
“Everybody has a lot more data from the weekends, so they understand a little bit more of what they needed from the car or maybe ride height, spring setups and whatnot to handle the bumps. It will be a little bit more difficult for sure. I think we still will have a great car, but I kind of won’t be able to answer that question until you kind of see practice times and stuff,” Herta explained.
“Really we were really fast in practice, but we didn’t know that we were going to be able to do it in qualifying. We just kind of do it off the wind when we’re in the session. Obviously it was a pretty easy decision there because we had a pretty good gap.
“But if it was maybe six-tenths or so, seven-tenths, it’s difficult to make that decision because you don’t want to be the guy that can get the pole, have a really good shot at it, and you get knocked out in round 1 because you thought you could make it through on blacks.”
Live coverage of the second annual Big Machine Music City Grand Prix in Nashville begins Sunday at 3:00 p.m. ET on NBC.