IndyCar driver Colton Herta represented promise for several reasons, not least of which was the belief that he would become the only American driver on the Formula One grid next season.
Herta was expected by many to become the first American driver to compete in Formula One since Alexander Rossi in 2015. His inclusion could have shaped the outlook of the 2023 grid and, more broadly, attracted American sponsors and viewers to a sport that wants to expand its reach in the United States.
But those ambitions stalled this week after the push to bring Herta to Formula One hit a wall that will likely keep the 22-year-old stateside for another season, raising questions about the sport’s accessibility to drivers who look to join from certain racing leagues.
“He’s basically in a situation where most people think he’s talented enough, competent enough for Formula One, but he doesn’t have the points needed,” said Nate Saunders, a United Kingdom-based journalist who covers Formula One for ESPN.
Herta was first tabbed as a potential Formula One driver in 2021, when Andretti Autosport, the outfit that oversees his IndyCar team, was reportedly in advanced talks to purchase Sauber, which runs the Alfa Romeo Formula One team. That takeover did not materialize, and the spot linked to Herta was filled by another driver.
The California native saw renewed interest earlier this year, with Red Bull taking a closer look at him. The conglomerate known for its energy drinks owns a pair of Formula One teams in England-based Red Bull Racing (see: defending champion Max Verstappen) and the Italian AlphaTauri team. AlphaTauri serves as a “junior team” to Red Bull Racing, and Red Bull hoped to make Herta one of its two AlphaTauri drivers ahead of the 2023 season.
The Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), the sport’s governing body, requires prospective drivers to obtain a “super license” to compete in Formula One. The problem? Herta fell short of the points required to obtain that super license and has no way of meeting that requirement in 2022.
Per FIA regulations, success in an open-wheel racing league such as IndyCar is weighted lower than success in Formula 2, the tier below Formula One.
AlphaTauri hoped the FIA would grant Herta an exemption, but that appears unlikely. Beyond that, Herta could compete in one of several international “winter series” events to earn the necessary points, but if he did so and failed to earn enough points, Herta and the teams involved would be left in a precarious position just weeks before the start of the 2023 season. Red Bull has now ditched the effort altogether, according to multiple reports.
“It’s a shame that they do not realize what value an American driver, especially a guy like Colton Herta, would have for booming, three-race America,” Red Bull development head Helmut Marko told German website Motorsport-Total in an article published Friday, referencing Formula One’s races in Miami, Las Vegas and Austin.
Herta is not the most accomplished driver in IndyCar, but as an 18-year-old in 2019, he became the youngest person to win an IndyCar Series race. His best season came in 2020, when he finished third in points.
Given that success, Marko said it’s “incomprehensible” that Herta would need to prove his qualification for Formula One through a bureaucratic points system. Rossi said as much Saturday, decrying that system on Twitter.
Still, Formula One remains keen to add an American driver as it expands stateside—the United States is slated to be the only country to host three races next year, with a new event in Las Vegas joining the U.S. Grand Prix in Austin and this year’s inaugural Miami Grand Prix.
“If Colton Herta was a Hungarian driver or a Mexican driver with the same results, I don’t think you’d have the same interest in him, but I think the clamor for an American driver in F1 right now is huge,” Saunders said. “You have a [Williams Racing] academy driver named Logan Sargeant who is American, and there’s very real talk that they might fast track him into a Formula One seat because the marketing opportunities that’ll be in the States are huge. That’s not to say Herta is undeserving of an F1 seat, but I think he’s kind of found himself in a position where he’s the best young American driver.”
Herta’s potential move to Formula One has had a broader impact on the driver lineups taking shape ahead of next season. A move to AlphaTauri would have allowed the team to more comfortably part ways with Pierre Gasly, who has been linked to the vacancy at Alpine.
ESPN reported that Nico Hülkenberg could also be a candidate for Alpine, although the German driver has been linked to the American-owned Haas team—which has yet to renew Mick Schumacher’s soon-expiring contract.
Elsewhere, Sebastian Vettel’s impending retirement opened the door for Fernando Alonso to jump from Alpine to Aston Martin, precipitating an awkward episode in which Alpine announced reigning Formula 2 champion Oscar Piastri as Alonso’s replacement before Piastri publicly rejected the announcement and later joined McLaren.