Kiwi Formula 1 driver Brendon Hartley keeps his eye on the prize

by Stewart Bell / 16 September, 2018

Brendon Hartley. Photo/Getty.

Kiwi Formula 1 driver Brendon Hartley’s bid for success on motorsport’s biggest stage has so far been a bumpy ride. Stewart Bell catches up with the 28-year-old racer from Palmerston North.

Formula 1 is the pinnacle of motorsport, a competitive cauldron for the very best of the best. It’s a case of arrive, deliver and succeed – or go and find another drive in a lesser series. It’s that brutal.

So it’s incredibly rare a second chance is given. But Palmerston North’s Brendon Hartley is enjoying just that with Red Bull’s B-team Toro Rosso. The 28-year-old found his way back to F1 by winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans last year – and twice securing the World Endurance Championship with Porsche (in 2015 and 2017). Luck has played its part, too.

But all that’s a long way from where his journey began, at a local go-kart track at the Manfeild events centre in Feilding, where Hartley dreamed of emulating his all-time Grand Prix hero, Jean Alesi. “My earliest memories were watching my old man [Bryan] at the racetrack, and I have an older brother [Nelson] who started racing before me,” he says.

“To be honest, it’s all I ever wanted to do – go racing. The track was where all our weekends were spent; if it wasn’t working on the go-karts or race cars, it was testing or racing them. Dad, who’s an engine builder, gave up racing to help my brother and me get into go-karts. So it was a real family affair.”

From go-karts to Grand Prix... Brendon Hartley began racing in go-karts at the age of six at the Manfeild track in Feilding, and now drives for Toro Rosso on the Formula 1 circuit.

From go-karts to Grand Prix... Brendon Hartley began racing in go-karts at the age of six at the Manfeild track in Feilding, and now drives for Toro Rosso on the Formula 1 circuit.

Hartley built on that family support, winning races in the New Zealand Formula Ford Championship, before competing in the highly rated single-seater Toyota Racing Series. But with money running out, Hartley’s family got in touch with Red Bull motorsport consultant Dr Helmut Marko. One of the most powerful men in F1, Marko runs Red Bull’s junior team. And as luck would have it, Marko had been watching Hartley. A contract to join the squad followed.

Then the real work began. At the age of 16, Hartley moved to Europe. Without his family, he had to live by himself. “The first year, I left friends, family and home and moved to a small town in East Germany,” he says. “I had a New Zealand mechanic, who was someone to lean on, which was great. Otherwise, it was a full German team.

“My parents came to visit me once during the year; they just couldn’t take time off work. I had to learn how to cook, which was pretty much pasta every night. There were so many different cultures, and a lot of travelling around Europe – places I could barely locate on the map before I went away.”

Initially, Hartley made the most of it, taking out the Formula Renault 2.0 Eurocup in 2007, then finishing third in the British Formula 3 championship in 2008. The same year, he went to Macau – its street track is considered the toughest of all – and fought back from 20th to third. That drive opened up a Formula 1 test at Red Bull Racing, replacing an injured Mark Webber. “This was what I’d been working for all my life,” says Hartley. “I phoned home straight away and let it ring until I’d woken my whole family.”

Sparks fly as Hartley qualifies for the Chinese Grand Prix in Shanghai in April.

Sparks fly as Hartley qualifies for the Chinese Grand Prix in Shanghai in April.

In 2009, he was given the coveted reserve driver role for Italian racing team Toro Rosso – one step away from an F1 race seat. But things were about to unravel. “I was racing in two other European series, as well as attending F1 races and staying prepared to step into the car at any moment,” he says.

“I was 19, but I was exhausted. I was lost. I didn’t know my place in the paddock. I didn’t know what was expected of me. Mentally, I just wasn’t ready. It affected my results in the other two series, which is the only place you can prove yourself as a test driver. I lost confidence and ultimately became unhappy and burnt out.”

His lack of results in Formula Renault 3.5 ultimately led to Hartley parting ways with Red Bull, but that didn’t get the resilient Kiwi down – nor his long-time partner Sarah Wilson (the couple married in January).

“I had to ask myself a lot of questions and call on people for advice,” he says. “But the truth of it was I didn’t really have an option. I was also committed at that point to being in Europe, so it was a bit of a wake-up call.”

Hartley’s path back involved him doing some simulator and test work for a rival F1 team, Mercedes, while Wilson worked shifts at a restaurant. He then went to Porsche as a factory driver of the 919 Hybrid in the World Endurance Championship (WEC), marking a four-year return to form.

In June 2017, Hartley captured one of motorsport’s most famous prizes, winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans alongside Timo Bernhard and Earl Bamber with Porsche.

When Porsche withdrew from the WEC at the end of 2017, the Formula 1 door reopened for Hartley, who’d maintained his relationship with Red Bull’s Marko. Last October, Hartley rejoined the team fold and was given a drive at the US Grand Prix in Austin. He took 13th on debut, and impressed with his natural speed, the quality of his technical feedback, and economical use of fuel learned from endurance racing.

His performance earned him a drive for the rest of the 2017 season, which he combined with the remainder of his WEC season.

Drama on the opening lap of the Singapore Grand Prix last year, when Sebastian Vettel, Kimi Räikkönen and Max Verstappen crashed out. Vettel remains the most successful driver in Singapore, with four wins.

Drama on the opening lap of the Singapore Grand Prix last year, when Sebastian Vettel, Kimi Räikkönen and Max Verstappen crashed out. Vettel remains the most successful driver in Singapore, with four wins.

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For 2018, Red Bull handed him a full-time drive, based on four races. “I tried to keep it simple, and called on all that experience I had in all those years racing go-karts,” says Hartley.

Halfway through the season, he has had a tough run, with a series of dramatic crashes, and only two point scores, including a 10th place in Germany on July 22. The following weekend, he was “gutted” after finishing in 11th place at the Hungarian Grand Prix, one place outside the points.

Nine races remain for him to prove himself on the Formula 1 stage, including the Singapore Grand Prix in September, the closest event for Kiwi motorsport fans since the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne back in March. Hartley hasn’t raced Singapore’s Marina Bay Street Circuit before, “but everyone says it’s one of the highlights on the calendar”, he says.

Singapore offers racing under lights and prides itself on its off-track entertainment, which this year includes the Killers, Liam Gallagher, Taiwanese singer Jay Chou, English popstar Dua Lipa, Simply Red, American hip-hop veterans the Sugarhill Gang and Dutch DJ Martin Garrix.

For the drivers, Formula 1 racing is a brutal test of fitness and endurance. Cockpit temperatures reach 60°C at speeds of up to 320kmh, exacerbated by three layers of fireproof clothing and a racing helmet; drivers can lose up to 3kg in fluid over a two-hour period.

During cornering, braking and accelerating, they can also experience lateral G-forces as high as 6.5 to 7. That’s like lying on your side with six times your own body weight pressing down on top of you. Neck muscles are under massive pressure, and there’s always the risk of going wheel-to-wheel with another driver – sometimes with catastrophic consequences.

“[Singapore] is arguably the most physically demanding race on the calendar, because of the heat and the workload during the lap,” says Hartley, whose lean frame is typical of high-performance drivers, who need strength and stamina without bulk. 

For New Zealand fans, Hartley’s shot at Formula 1 stirs memories of the 1960s and 70s glory days, when Kiwi legends Bruce McLaren, Denny Hulme and Chris Amon were at the pinnacle of motorsport.

“We have a huge heritage in motorsports,” he says. “I’m really proud to be one of the Kiwis competing at an international level.”

This article was first published in the September 2018 issue of North & South.

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