INDIANAPOLIS — Colton Herta's victory in last year's GMR Grand Prix on the road course at Indianapolis Motor Speedway was supposed to catapult him into IndyCar championship contention.
The 23-year-old Californian has instead been snakebitten by one frustration after another during a 12-month winless streak — one he hopes to break Saturday in this year's race on the 14-turn, 2.439-mile circuit.
"It's always been a great race for us, two podiums and a win there," Herta said earlier this week. "Obviously we've had strong cars in the past. We've always qualified well."
Last May, he also raced harder and better than everyone else on the grand prix grid.
Herta made the early switch to rain tires, saved his Honda-powered Andretti Autosport No. 26 car as it started sliding, overcame two late pit stops and eventually pulled away from three-time race winner Simon Pagenaud.
Afterward, the exuberant Herta called it the most difficult race of his career, but his challenges were just beginning. Later that month, he crashed in practice just two days before the Indianapolis 500. On race day, he finished 30th when a bad throttle sensor knocked him out after 129 laps.
Four races later, after earning his second pole position of the season, Herta's head sock broke and his hair impaired his vision as he finished second in Toronto. He managed only one top-five finish in the last seven races on the 2022 schedule, slipping to 10th in the final standings for the worst result in his four full IndyCar seasons.
All the while there was rampant speculation about a possible move to Formula One, the international open-wheel circuit, until Herta signed a four-year contract extension with Andretti in October. The deal coupled with other offseason moves left Herta as the longest-tenured driver on one of the top teams in the American open-wheel series, and it was one reason he opted to continue driving for Michael Andretti.
In March, Bryan Herta — Colton's father, manager and agent, as well as a former IndyCar driver — called it "a unique situation" in that his son began his time with Andretti being able to rely on "good, experienced teammates" in James Hinchcliffe, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Alexander Rossi but "now he has to be the leader, and that's interesting."
In his new role, though, he's being overshadowed by the other guys.
Herta completed just 49 of 100 laps before contact with Will Power sent him into the wall at the season opener in St. Petersburg, Florida. And while teammates Kyle Kirkwood and Romain Grosjean took the top two spots in Long Beach, California in the third race of the season — Grosjean followed that with another runner-up finish two weeks ago in Birmingham, Alabama — Herta returned to Indianapolis looking to snap a 16-race victory drought.
It's the longest of his IndyCar career and tied for his longest at any racing level since he left Europe in 2017.
"It's obviously less than ideal," said Herta, who is 10th in the points standings. "We've been in the hunt. Obviously we know how to win races. This weekend's the best place to start it. Hopefully we can get a win here. But it is annoying to have basically a year without a win."
Herta managed just one lap in the first practice session Friday because of a mechanical problem, and while he did make it through the entire second session, he was 15th on the speed chart.
Could Herta's fortunes finally change on the same course and in similar weather conditions as last year? Only if he duplicates last year's surprise win after qualifying 14th — the same spot he will start from Saturday after posting a fast lap of 1 minute, 9.8375 seconds.
"We know we're good," Herta said when asked about the possibility of rain on race day. "We've never been slow here. We've always had great cars here. Most of the time we've been in contention for at least a podium. It's a place that I feel very comfortable coming to."
That's quickly becoming true Christian Lundgaard as well.
Less than 10 months after the 21-year-old from Denmark earned his first IndyCar podium finish on the IMS road course, he won the first pole position of his career on the same layout.
Lundgaard posted a lap of 1:09.3321 on Friday, barely holding off Sweden's Felix Rosenqvist for the first spot on the starting grid. It's the first time Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing has taken a pole since Takuma Sato in August 2020, and the team has three cars among the eight fastest in the 27-car lineup.
"It feels awesome, getting my first P1," Lundgaard said. "Having said that, Jack (Harvey) is P4 and Graham (Rahal) is P8, and that's the best qualifying we've had in two years. Honestly, I didn't think that lap was good enough."
Rosenqvist certainly made the wait difficult for Lundgaard on his final hard-charging lap, but a bobble in the ninth turn dropped the Arrow McLaren driver to second with a time of 1:09.3348. Spanish driver Alex Palou, the 2021 IndyCar champ, will start third.
For Lundgaard, it's been an amazingly fast start at one of the world's best-known racing venues. He was 12th on the road course in his only IndyCar start in 2020, then added two top-10 finishes — ninth and second — in last year's races on the IMS road course on his way to becoming the series' rookie of the year.