Herta led 57 of the 75 laps in Mid-Ohio’s Race 2 in the Honda Indy 200, and the majority of laps in which he wasn’t P1 were a result of running behind two very off-strategy cars.
The 20-year-old, in his second year in the NTT IndyCar Series, led home Alexander Rossi and Ryan Hunter-Reay in an Andretti Autosport 1-2-3 – the team’s first podium sweep in 15 years – but he had to survive a restart on Firestone’s harder compound tires and also spend the final stint looking after the softer ‘reds’.
The vast majority of the field had pitted under the first full-course caution, which came on Lap 15 when Dalton Kellett spun his A.J. Foyt Racing-Chevy into the Turn 1 sandtrap. That obliged drivers to stretch their middle stint to the max fuel-wise (30 laps). While Rossi and Hunter-Reay switched to a second set of reds, Herta went for the harder black compound making his life tougher on the restart that would follow, since the harder compound Firestones take longer to get up to temperature. What saved him from being passed by the red-tired cars was having Scott Dixon between him and the Rossi/Hunter-Reay duo.
“I think… we probably made the wrong choice, but it really didn't make that big of a difference because I think the blacks and reds were closer today for some reason than yesterday.
“We were actually in the Carousel [at the end of the track] when they called me to pit. They saw Dalton went off in Turn 1 so I had to shoot off really quickly, so we really had no chance to discuss what tire was going to be better.
“I think if we look back at it, it probably would have been a lot less stress if we were on reds, but I think once we got the blacks up to temperature, it really didn't matter because I think we were fast enough to keep them behind. I was very happy that Dixon [also on blacks] was actually behind me… because I knew he was going to give [Rossi and Hunter-Reay] a really hard time, and I knew I had a little bit of an advantage on cold tires compared to him, based on how it seemed at the start.
“I think that, and where the restarts take place, it's easy to kind of build up a little bit of a gap before you get into any of the passing zones. It gave me that little bit more confidence to push it in the corners and I could make a few mistakes on exit and still get away with it and not have the trouble of somebody breathing down my neck.
“I think if Rossi and Hunter-Reay [both on softs] were right behind me, they probably would have gotten me, but I think having that buffer in Scott really made the difference.”
Dixon would soon spin off, but by then Herta’s tires were up to temperature, so once off-strategy Takuma Sato and Marco Andretti were out of his way, Herta was able to keep Rossi at arm’s length through the second stint while also sticking rigidly to a fuel consumption number. Rossi, whose reds went off, pitted on Lap 45 for hard tires, as soon as the final pit window opened, whereas Herta (and Hunter-Reay) eked out their fuel a lap longer before stopping – Herta for reds, Hunter-Reay for blacks.
Rossi’s tactics worked in that he remained just ahead of Hunter-Reay, but he could do nothing about Herta up front, and by pitting one lap earlier, he had less fuel to try and close the gap to Herta in front by using push-to-pass boost. His only hope was that Herta would make an error or use up his reds too fast. Instead, the youngster judged his tire life to perfection and came home the winner.
“Obviously we had stopped very early [first stop] so we were able to hit a bigger fuel number in the second stint,” Herta reflected. “I think that really made the difference because we were able to hit that fuel number and not really worry about the cars behind. We could control the pace. Yeah, they couldn't really get close to us…
“I think we made a great call to kind of overcut Rossi a little bit. We were able to save the fuel to go one lap longer than, and the tires held on. I think it was a little bit closer than it should have been on that out-lap because I accidentally hit the pit lane speed limit coming out of the Keyhole [Turn 2] for the second day in a row. Did it to Scott yesterday and he ran into the back of me and then did it today and almost lost a spot. We've definitely got to figure something out so I'm not doing that!”
Herta has moved up to fourth in the points standings, only 11 behind former Indy Lights teammate Pato O’Ward with three races to go.