Le Mans winner and sportscar ace Brendon Hartley is set to make his F1 debut at this weekend’s United States Grand Prix in Austin, completing a remarkable journey to the grid. We look back over the New Zealander’s route to the top…
There’s a certain irony to Brendon Hartley being given his F1 shot by Toro Rosso, given that only seven years earlier he’d been left at a career crossroads when he was dropped from Red Bull’s vaunted young driver programme.
Faced with a similar situation, many a driver might crumble or simply disappear from the racing stratosphere. But Hartley, perhaps infused with the same dogged determination that countrymen Bruce McLaren and Denny Hulme had shown when they made the same trip from New Zealand to Europe in the late 1950s, refused to give up on his racing dreams.
Instead, the then-20-year-old, who’d been picked up by Red Bull as a shaggy-haired teenager in 2006 and immediately placated young driver supremo Helmut Marko by winning the European Formula Renault 2.0 crown the following year, dusted himself down and looked at other options.
"It was tough, maybe life-changing even," said Hartley of the split that occurred in mid-2010, whilst he in the midst of dovetailing a Red Bull test and reserve role with a drive alongside Daniel Ricciardo in Formula Renault 3.5.
"I'd been with Red Bull a long time. But straight away I was thinking about what I was going to do next...”
After spending the remainder of 2010 and all of 2011 ploughing his own furrow with limited success in GP2 and Formula Renault 3.5, Hartley turned his attention to sportscar racing. It would prove a great fit for the talented youngster, whose single-seater skills proved well-suited to prototype racing, and he rounded off a positive season, which included a debut at Le Mans, with an F1 test outing for Mercedes, a team for which he’d done extensive simulator work.
His star on the rise once more, the 2013 season saw Hartley return to the top step of the podium and properly establish his sportscar credentials as he won in Grand-Am at Road America and in the European Le Mans series at Paul Ricard.
Those performances helped catch the eye of Porsche, who duly signed Hartley to race alongside fellow antipodean (and F1 retiree) Mark Webber in 2014 as the German manufacturer made a full-scale return to the World Endurance Championship.
Paired with Timo Bernhard, the duo scored a podium first time out and two more before the end of the year, before scooping world championship glory with four wins in 2015. A further four wins followed in 2016 before Hartley, minus Mark Webber but with fellow Kiwi Earl Bamber, landed the big one in 2017: the Le Mans 24 Hours.
But if that victory was amazing, so was what to follow. On the verge of another WEC title, but facing another crossroads with Porsche set to bow out of prototype racing, Hartley’s old employer made a surprise call.
Needing a driver to replace Pierre Gasly while the Frenchman returned to Japan for the Super Formula season finale, Toro Rosso turned to the now 27-year-old New Zealander to fill their vacant cockpit in the United States.
“This opportunity came as somewhat of a surprise, but I never did give up on my ambition and childhood dream to reach F1,” said Hartley, who last tested for the Italian team in 2009.
“I have grown and learnt so much since the days when I was the Red Bull and Toro Rosso reserve driver, and the tough years I went through made me stronger and even more determined.”
Hartley thus will become the ninth New Zealander to race in F1, and the first since Mike Thackwell in 1984. Thackwell entered the highest category of racing at age 19 and made his second and final start at 23.
Hartley has had to wait longer to get his shot in Grand Prix racing, but the journey will no doubt make his experience all the sweeter.