2015 was karting star Colton Herta’s first season racing outside of the USA and the 15-year-old from Valencia, Calif., did a remarkable job. His father, former IndyCar ace Bryan Herta, explains the challenges, past, present and future.
The MSA Formula, certified by the FIA and run to Formula 4 regulations, is Britain’s replacement for the legendary Formula Ford Championship. The Mygale chassis, Hankook tires and Ford EcoBoost 1.6-liter engines of 150hp are common to all teams, and they race at famous tracks such as Brands Hatch, Donington Park and Silverstone.
Driving for Carlin, America’s Colton Herta scooped four wins, three poles and eight fastest laps this past season. And that latter figure is interesting; it suggests an ace driver who was less familiar with the tracks and the cars yet by race day had the mental data and experience he needed to find the sweet spot.
His proud father, former Indy car race winner and now IndyCar team owner Bryan Herta, acknowledges that his son has matured to a phenomenal degree throughout 2015. It’s not quite like Colton went to England a boy and came back a man, but it’s not far off.
“He moved to England by himself, still only 14 years old,” says Bryan, “and I only made it to two of his races. So when he came home, he was like a different kid and all grown up.
“So even outside the car, there have been a lot of changes for Colton to adapt to. But Trevor Carlin’s guys have really made a home for him, they’ve always gone the extra mile. Colton literally went over there not knowing a soul, and even now, all he knows are the people on the team. But on weekends off, he and his chief mechanic go into London, go to a movie, go for a meal, that sort of thing. He’s really being looked after and we appreciate it because Carlin didn’t have to do that part.”
Experience is vital
But enough of the personal growth. At the end of the day, it’s all about the racing, and the fact that Colton’s results mirrored his ever-increasing knowledge and confidence is what Bryan finds most encouraging. The youngster’s season-long progress moved Motorsport.com’s Val Khorounzhiy to write the following in his end of season F4 review: Had the series been a couple of rounds longer, the chances are that Herta… would have worked his way into title contention. Seventh after the first five races, he was the top scorer in the championship's second half by a hefty margin.
Bryan's assessment tallies precisely with Val's. He says: “In the first half of the year Colton looked pretty good, but it took him that time to really learn everything – the tracks, the cars and, actually, just the type of racing. But in the second half of the year he was really strong, and did really well. I actually count five wins, because they took one away [at Knockhill] for exceeding track limits. But…OK! In reality, it was four.”
Colton’s father was never a gauche or cocky driver, he is a modest and diffident team owner, and so it’s no surprise that he also sidesteps the typical pitfalls of overambition for his offspring.
“Honestly – and I mean honestly – this career path has been 100 percent Colton’s decision,” says Bryan. “He wanted to race in the UK, he wanted to live there while he was doing it, he chose the category, chose the team. He did all the research online and then came to me and said the two teams he wanted us to talk to were Carlin and Fortec.
“So I flew over and met with both teams. And I had a really good feeling from Trevor Carlin and his group, and felt like Colton would be a good fit.”
The Formula 1 dream
No surprise that Colton’s reasons for racing in Europe are because of his ambition to reach Formula 1. Americans have famously had an up and down time at the top of motorsport’s pyramid – for every Phil Hill and Mario Andretti there has been a Brett Lunger and Scott Speed. And while the same could be said of countless nations participating in F1, the successes and failures of the Stars ’n’ Stripes have been exacerbated by how few from these shores have even tried.
In the current era, however, the challenge of becoming a grand prix driver has little to do with geography or past experience and far more to do with the eight-figure sums demanded by grand prix teams even at the bum end of the grid.
“Yeah, Colton’s well aware of the difficulties,” says Bryan, “and he hears the negativity over there, too. A lot of kids and their parents and the media are always complaining, ‘Oh, you can’t make it to F1 if you don’t have $20 million and a country behind you’. But what I always tell him is, ‘Hey, someone’s got to drive those 20 F1 cars, and they haven’t all had that backing.’ The way I look at it, and the way Colton looks at it, is that if you don’t try, you’ll never make it. You’re eliminating yourself from the word go. Whereas putting yourself over there, totally committing to it, is giving yourself a chance.
“And anyway, complaining about the system doesn’t help. That’s how things are and one person whining about it won’t change it. You’ve got to accept the situation. It’s like that Mafia phrase – “This is the life we’ve chosen.” Be realistic, be aware that it’s not always going to be fair. Look at Kevin Magnussen. He does pretty much everything right, and then wakes up one day and it’s like, ‘What the hell just happened?!’ There’s not anyone out there who doesn’t think Kevin belongs in F1, but he’s not there now. That can happen.”
No backup plan
What Colton is not doing is racing overseas just for the sake of being there, seeking options in DTM or European sports card as potential alternatives should the wheels come off his F1 dreams. Bryan may not be a pushy father, but he has long offered one piece of advice and it’s become something of a mantra.
“I’m not a fan of backup plans,” he states. “Psychologically, having a fallback position makes it too easy to give up on your original plan. I prefer to set a goal, and push like hell for that goal until you just can’t anymore. Until then, be focused 100 percent. If you’re wishy-washy, you’ll never get there.
“Having said that, it’s going to take more than just commitment and focus,” he admits. “How long can we keep Colton over there? I don’t know. We’re trying to put a budget together and so far we’ve had some generous help from this side. But honestly, the career plan is on a year-to-year basis. It’s not like, ‘We have a huge budget, and here’s our three-year plan.’”
At least the 2016 chapter of the story appears set. From the MSA Formula version of F4, young Herta is going to graduate to the BRDC [British Racing Drivers’ Club] version, and so will race a Tatuus instead of a Mygale, Pirelli instead of Hankook, and 200hp 2-liter Ford Duratec instead of a 150hp 1.6-liter EcoBoost. And from there?
“Euro F3, I think,” says Bryan. “That’s super competitive. But we’re going to need somebody, be it a manufacturer or an F1 team or whatever, to say, ‘This kid is good enough and we should put him into our junior program and see how far he can go.’”
Miles and miles
Being somewhat old-school, Herta has been astounded at the amount of practice his son has acquired since hitting the old country.
“This past year he did 25 test days, 30 races, and between 30-40 days on the simulator at Carlin. And next year he’s going to do as many as 40 test days! Anywhere else, acquiring that amount of experience would have taken three years. He’s only 15, OK, but the other day I worked out that he’s already done more car races than I had by the time I made my first Indy 500 start!
“But, it’s important to get that kind of background,” Herta continues. “Back in the early ’90s, drivers hadn’t done a lot of racing in the lower formulas so there were not high expectations on an F1 rookie or even a sophomore. Drivers were given two or three years to settle in. Nowadays, kids like Max Verstappen are really well advanced by the time they reach F1 because they have done so much racing in the lower formulas, so much preparation. But along with that, the expectations to perform well, right from the word go, have become extremely high.”
“So that’s what Colton’s doing; as much racing as he can while he’s still young and the cars are relatively inexpensive. Because as you move up, there’s less and less racing, the testing gets heavily restricted too so you’ve got to get the miles in early.”
So while the Hertas are determined to not even consider other potential avenues of racing for now, there’s no question that wherever he ends up, Colton will have a solid foundation upon which to build. But for his sake, and for the country’s sake, let’s hope he can go all the way to the top. At a time when people are once more questioning the costs of the U.S. Grand Prix, it would be some compensation to think that America can still be represented in F1 by both a team and also a driver or two. It is, after all, supposed to be an exclusive yet also all-inclusive World Championship.