Defending Long Beach winner Herta delivered the eighth pole position of his IndyCar career after struggling during Friday practice on the extremely gripped-up street track.
Herta produced a 1m05.309s lap in the decisive Fast Six session, eclipsing the previous qualifying lap record by 0.9s and earning pole by 0.445s over Team Penske's Josef Newgarden. But he admitted it came as a result of difficulties in opening practice when he was almost seven-tenths off the pace.
“Yesterday was a struggle for us,” Herta said.
“We kind of went to the drawing board overnight, brought something completely different out for today. It worked really well, I was really happy with it.
“Obviously our one-lap pace is really strong. Now we're kind of shifting focus to the racecar. Seems like we can get up to tyre temp really fast, get a lap in, so I was really happy with that.”
The extent of grip on Friday shocked several drivers, but Herta is unconvinced that the presence of IMSA SportsCar Championship and the Porsche Carrera Cup on the support bill was responsible for the “bizarre” track tendencies.
But as temperatures cooled from Friday’s major heat to Saturday, Herta said the car “felt completely different” from the start of second practice.
“The steering, the kickback, the heaviness of the wheel – completely changed from yesterday, which is bizarre,” he said.
“I never really felt that in first practice anywhere in an IndyCar, let alone a street circuit. It was very weird.
“But the track temp also came down a bunch which is the biggest thing. We had a little bit more cloud cover today and track temp was down tremendously from yesterday.”
Drivers aggrieved by traffic problems
Scott McLaughlin, Marcus Ericsson and Will Power were all left aggravated by track etiquette issues that prevented them from showing their best in qualifying, with each missing out on the Fast Six as a result.
Championship leader McLaughlin was on an out-lap and let Ericsson's Chip Ganassi Racing through to continue his hot lap exiting Turn 9. But the Swede didn’t believe the Team Penske driver had moved aside soon enough, and so ensured he got in the way of McLaughlin’s next lap.
Ericsson said: “I was on a hot lap and he was on a prep lap and he backed me up into Turn 9. I had to abort that lap and try to start a new one and then he tried to overtake me into T11...
“I don't like that, sorry. He'd already impeded my lap and then he tried to get me back!”
Ericsson will start eighth, ironically just ahead of McLaughlin who was deeply unimpressed with his rival.
“Just a cluster out there with the traffic,” said the St. Petersburg winner.
“I dunno what Marcus was doing, he was coming like he was on a fast lap and then he just stops and that clustered the whole thing up and then everyone behind us…
We're trying to find gaps out there, but if you think a guy's on a fast lap, you make a gap for him, and then he stops right next to you and won't let you back through.
"We've got a fast car and there's no reason we can't come through in the race. I just feel bad for the guys because we had a really solid car to go for where Herta is and challenge the Andretti guys.
“I'll be bombing for sure, just having a crack at it.”
Team-mate Power was similarly gutted by missing out on reaching the Fast Six by one-ten-thousandth of a second, after his best lap was ruined.
"Pato [O’Ward] stopped in the hairpin,” said the two-time Long Beach winner, who will start seventh.
“I don't know who was backing up but it kinda sucks when they do it in the hairpin because it ruins the money lap I've just done and then the next one because you're on the guy's gearbox. By the third lap your tyres are kinda gone.
“It's good when they do it in the back straight because you can abort your lap and set up the next one, but at the hairpin it ruins your lap and your next one.
"It's been frustrating with traffic this weekend, everyone just backs up so much.”