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IndyCar Nashville

Herta expects tougher pole battle in Nashville’s second year

Last year’s Nashville pole-winner Colton Herta predicts it will be a much harder battle for preeminence in qualifying in 2022 – but is still expecting Andretti Autosport-Honda to shine.

Colton Herta, Andretti Autosport w/ Curb-Agajanian Honda

Herta’s pace advantage around the 2.17-mile street course during IndyCar’s inaugural visit to downtown Nashville meant he got through Q1 using Firestone’s primary tires. This meant he saved a fresh set of the softer alternates for the Firestone Fast Six, allowing him to deliver a knockout blow to the opposition with a lap 0.55sec faster than his closest rival.

However, the Andretti Autosport ace, who was leading last week’s IndyCar round on the IMS road course until a halfshaft failed for no obvious reason, is expecting a tougher battle for pole in this weekend’s Big Machine Music City Grand Prix.

He explained: “Everybody has a lot more data from the weekend, so they understand a little bit more of what they needed from the car – maybe ride height, spring setups and whatnot to handle the bumps. It will be a little bit more difficult for sure.

“We were really fast in practice, but we didn't know that we were going to be able to do it in qualifying… Obviously it was a pretty easy decision there because we had a pretty good gap, but if it was maybe six-tenths or seven-tenths, it's difficult to make that decision because you don't want to be the guy that can get the pole, have a really good shot at it, and you get knocked out in round 1 because you thought you could make it through on blacks [Firestone primaries].”

Adding a major consideration to the mix is the new alternate tires that Firestone will run this weekend, in which the sidewalls are constructed from a plant-based compound – a more sustainable source, the guayule shrub. Firestone says the drivers will feel no difference from these green sidewalled tires and their regular street course ‘reds’ but the heat of competition is the best test lab.

“I think the feeling should be similar because the contact patch is the same,” said Herta. “You never know how soft or stiff the sidewall will be with this new stuff compared to what we had before. I don't think it'll be a bad tire as far as deg[radation] and knowing that the contact patch is the same. It's more in the sidewall.

“But it'll be interesting to see the loads in the corners and what that might do to spring rates and damping and how that might affect it, if it's flexing a whole bunch or just a super stiff sidewall. It might completely change what you need from the car.”

Four of Herta’s nine pole positions have come on street tracks, and he said that “I think we have a great car for it. The damping thing is so important at every track we go to, especially the ones that are so bumpy, and I think we have a great damping program. It just seems to work. At all the street circuits we go to, we seem to have a phenomenal car to drive.

“We had a great car last year, but you never know what you're going to get when you come back to a street circuit and there's some changes to the track. I'm hoping it's close to what it was last year.”

Arguably more important than the track tweaks is the fact that restarts this year will be held on the Korean War Veterans’ Memorial Bridge over the Cumberland River – the same location as the start of the race, rather than the short straight before the start/finish line. This is an attempt to eliminate the hazard of 26 cars trying to squeeze through one of the tightest areas of track at racing speed while still bunched together.

The knock-on effect, says Herta, is that it will be hard for whoever’s at the front on a restart to get away from his pursuers.

“I think it's going to be tough if you're the leader to get a good jump. It's a really long straight coming out of a really slow corner. I think it's better, yeah, because we don't want super long safety cars and just the mess of what Turn 11 was last year on the restarts. I think it is a good decision.

“It's going to be tough as the leader, I think, to get a good jump on the field, but it is a really long straight, but now with the tighter Turn 9, probably a pretty good braking zone. It'll be interesting, though. It'll for sure promote some passing, I believe, and yeah, maybe guys will chuck it up the inside of Turn 8 before the restart…”

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