Colton Herta Moving From IndyCar to Formula 1 Would Make Perfect Sense

Herta's shot at the 20th and final open seat on the F1 grid is a seemingly-impossible rumor for now. If it is more, he should do everything in his power to make the move.

105th running of the indianapolis 500
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For IndyCar fans, 21-year-old Colton Herta is already an unforgettable talent. In on-board videos, he pops as the driver just a bit closer to the limit than anyone else. On timing sheets, he's the one liable to show up a half-second faster than anyone else. In races, he's the one that can pass half the field in 30 laps on a street circuit. Fellow young drivers Alex Palou and Patricio O'Ward beat him to a championship, but Herta's position as a face of IndyCar's immediate future is certain. Unless, that is, he makes an unexpected leap to Formula 1 as part of Michael Andretti's rumored acquisition of the Alfa Romeo-branded Sauber F1 team.

For the past two weeks, that possibility has been widely discussed in the margins of reporting about Andretti's plans to acquire a stake in Alfa. Whether or not Herta is part of the conversation, that transaction seems to be in play. Back in August, reports indicated that Andretti already had both the backing and the interest to make a move to join the Formula 1 grid as a co-owner in the near future. Sauber's operation is the most logical entry point, a position that strengthened when existing team leadership acquired the services of Valtteri Bottas and made clear their second car is open, for now.

Whether or not the reports about Herta's chance to join that Formula 1 team in the immediate future are true, it is the logical endpoint to Michael Andretti having control of an F1 seat. Although both Alexander Rossi and Romain Grosjean have F1 experience, Herta has been Andretti's best driver in any series for two straight years, while his promising Indy Lights prospect Kyle Kirkwood (no sure thing to actually make it onto the IndyCar grid full-time next year) is still years away from worrying about any move out of IndyCar. Herta, however, is a six-time race winner who has finished seventh, third, and fifth in his three IndyCar seasons. For comparison, six-time series champion and widely accepted IndyCar driver of the decade Scott Dixon has won seven races in the same stretch.

There is one problem here. At 32 of 40 points, Herta is not qualified for a Superlicense in the arcane system F1 designed more or less to prevent Red Bull from promoting a driver to F1 after just one year in cars, as they did with Max Verstappen. This is because the system is designed to only promote through Formula 2, where any position in the top three automatically qualifies a driver for an F1 seat the next year. However, because Herta is above a 30 point threshold, he is within range of the force majeure clause that allows the series to award a license to a driver who has not reached the point total for "reasons outside [the driver's] control." The rule was largely designed for drivers affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, but if F1 wanted Herta on the grid, the FIA could simply make an exception. As he would be the only American on a serious path up the series ladder since Scott Speed in 2007, it would be easy to imagine F1 getting the FIA to bend to their needs.

So Herta is qualified and there is a real chance he actually does get a shot at Formula 1 some time soon, but, if an offer is made, should he take it? The question is not as easy as it may seem. In an open letter published to RACER earlier this week, Marshall Pruett makes a convincing argument against making the switch: In IndyCar, Herta is destined for greatness right now. In F1, Alfa Romeo is languishing. Two of Herta's 2022 IndyCar teammates already left sinking ships in Formula 1 for IndyCar, and they're glad they did.

And Pruett is right. Unlike the Andretti Autosport IndyCar program, Alfa Romeo has not been a good F1 team in a very long time. The team's last top-three finish in the constructor's standings came in 2008, two years before Mercedes AMG F1 would even join the grid. That was also the last year the team scored a win. The operation's last two podiums came in 2012, when the team still employed current Red Bull driver Sergio Perez and current Toyota sports car ace Kamui Kobayashi. By contrast, Andretti Autosport is a perennial contender with five championships and six Indianapolis 500 wins to its name.

There is the question of leadership, too. At Andretti, Herta is in position to be the #1 driver in a four-car team at just 22 years old. In Formula 1, he would be put up against Valtteri Bottas in the very beginning of his post-Mercedes era. It will make Bottas the de facto leader by prestige and seniority, and put Herta in exactly the sort of situation that has left Antonio Giovanazzi looking lost next to Kimi Raikkonen for three straight seasons. It is not a winning position; Herta would have to steal lead driver designation on track, and, even after doing so, the most he can prove is that he is better than the guy not good enough to stay at Mercedes.

A rule change for 2022 is going to leave the entire paddock learning an entirely new type of car for the near future. This change is unlikely to suddenly vault Alfa Romeo into contention for wins and championships, but it could give them an opportunity to move further up the grid overnight. Will the ninth-best team in F1 still be languishing in a four-car battle with Haas F1 next season? Whether or not it can succeed, the rare chance to join a program at the very beginning of a seasons-long development cycle is an advantage for a driver.

But the crucial difference is timing. While Pruett accurately points out that the most successful drivers to leave IndyCar for F1 did it later in their careers, modern F1 teams prize youth to an absurd degree. It is not a good system, but it is the system by which the F1 grid operates. By coming into the series at 22 (or, if licensing rules mean that he has to wait until the 2023 season to enter, 23), Herta enters the European open-wheel ladder with years to prove his mettle and earn consideration for open seats at elite teams. In a world where Daniel Ricciardo is an elder statesman at 32, Herta has time on his side only if he enters now.

Youth is advantageous if the switch goes poorly, too. If Herta fails to live up to expectations, he can return to IndyCar a bigger star than he left, even without the years of Indy race wins he'll be missing from his resume. While a middling F1 driver like Max Chilton is not necessarily a prestigious hire in the IndyCar world, drivers with interesting resumes that were followed avidly by American fans like Grosjean and Rossi have arrived in the series as day-one stars. Those who come back from an attempt to change disciplines, like Dario Franchitti and Juan Pablo Montoya, have largely picked up where they left off as respected members of the paddock.

There are some distinct complications with the seat being linked to Andretti that change the equation, too. Normally, the assumption is that a driver must take an F1 opportunity immediately because it will never come up again. If Andretti takes a controlling stake in the team that allows him to choose a driver with limited or no funding to fill his designated seat every season, Herta could have the rare opportunity to wait longer than most to make his switch. If he does take the Alfa Romeo seat, Andretti's influence as a team owner could also offer him the rare opportunity to continue his sports car duties (currently as a BMW GT driver, likely as a part-time factory driver with a DPi program by 2023) alongside his F1 schedule. McLaren, the only team that currently has operations in both IndyCar and F1, has even hinted that their drivers can contest the Indianapolis 500 in-season if they'd like; Andretti could be in a position to offer Herta the same deal.

Even if Andretti buys his share in Sauber and by extent Alfa Romeo F1, none of this matters if Herta is not actually offered the seat for either 2022 or 2023. He can simply continue on his path to IndyCar greatness as one of the brightest stars in all of auto racing. But, if the opportunity is real, it's something no IndyCar driver has been given since Sebastien Bourdais in 2008. The hope that an F1 seat will be around two years down the road is no guarantee; If Colton Herta wants to be an F1 driver, he should answer the call.

Looking ahead

While the IndyCar season is already done, F1 is still racing through December. The series is off this weekend ahead of the United States Grand Prix at the Circuit of the Americas next weekend. If you want to catch high-level auto racing this weekend, your best bet is the NASCAR Cup Series playoff race from Texas Motor Speedway. That airs on Sunday at 2 p.m. ET on NBC.

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