From New Zealand to the United States
With his Japanese manga-style floppy hair and unfeasibly laid-back Kiwi attitude, Brendon Hartley comes across more like a surfer than a racing driver (although he does bear a passing resemblance to James Hunt). But the 27-year-old two-time Le Mans winner who makes his debut with Toro Rosso this weekend already has a long history with the team, having first sampled the STR3 (the car with which Sebastian Vettel took his breakthrough Monza victory) in 2008.
Brendon was born in Palmerston, on the north island of New Zealand: co-incidentally only around 30 kilometres from the birthplace of Chris Amon, who is widely regarded as the best driver never to win a world championship grand prix.
With his father Brian and brother Nelson both being keen racers, Brendon grew up with karting and caught the attention of Red Bull – which is what enabled him to make the move to Europe and win the 2007 Formula Renault Eurocup. But it was the following year that really got him noticed, when the young New Zealander took part in the Macau Formula 3 Grand Prix and went from 20th on the grid to third at the end of the race. As a result, he was considered for the Toro Rosso Formula 1 seat vacated in the beginning of 2009 by Sebastien Bourdais that eventually went to Jaime Alguersuari. “But to be honest,” says Hartley in a typically self-effacing way, “I didn’t really deserve it back then.”
A year later, he was dropped from the Red Bull junior programme after a run of disappointing results. And now the situation has turned full circle: right back to Toro Rosso and F1 again, in Austin.
24 hours of fame
Although he was no longer part of the junior driver programme, Hartley maintained good relations with Red Bull, even keeping the drinks firm as a personal sponsor. In many ways, as he pointed out at the time, the decision freed him: opening up career paths and opportunities he may not have considered otherwise. One of them was endurance racing, with his first appearance at Le Mans being in 2012 with a privateer LMP2 car.
“When I went into prototypes and saw that it was working out, my aim then was obviously to be picked up by a manufacturer team,” says Brendon. “At the start of 2013 I sent an email to Andreas Siedl, who was Porsche team principal. Actually, knowing that Porsche was going receive thousands and thousands of emails like that, I sort of hesitated before doing it. But then I had the opportunity for a meeting just after Le Mans, which went very well; then there was a second meeting and finally a chance to test the car.”
The rest is history: Brandon won Le Mans twice in the Porsche 919 Hybrid – arguably the most complex and sophisticated racing car ever built – and Porsche’s reputation as the most successful manufacturer in Le Mans history remains intact. Significantly, Brendon also won the World Endurance Championship round at the Circuit of the Americas three times.
But over the summer came the bombshell: after this year, Porsche would stop the LMP1 programme.
The next chapter
Brandon is as bemused now to be picked for the Toro Rosso drive in Austin as he was to be signed by Porsche back then. “The opportunity came as somewhat of a surprise,” he says. “But I never actually gave up on my dream of reaching F1.”
He’ll have a lot to learn. He’s not driven an F1 car since 2012, when he took part in a young driver test at Magny-Cours in France with Mercedes, completing 87 laps. That wasn’t actually his first experience of Pirelli tyres, as he also did a handful of GP2 races in 2011 and 2012. But so much has changed since then that this is effectively an F1 debut from scratch.
Get it right – as Toro Rosso is convinced that he will – and there are some interesting opportunities ahead. Toro Rosso don’t have any confirmed drivers for next year yet, or indeed the rest of this year (and none of the remaining 2017 F1 races clash with either of the two races left on the World Endurance calendar, in Shanghai and Bahrain). Brendon currently has no firm plans in place for 2018 either, although he said a while back that he would like to stay involved with Porsche in some way if he could.
And that opens up another intriguing possibility. The speculation linking Porsche to Formula 1 as an engine supplier (using technology similar to that already developed for the ultra-successful 919 Hybrid) refuses to go away. If that were the case, having a Porsche factory driver with Formula 1 experience would surely be an extremely useful commodity?