Brendon Hartley, and his Formula One rise from Manawatū to Monaco
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Only one New Zealander has broken through to the top series of motorsport in recent times, Brendon Hartley, who moved to Europe at the tender age of 16 and eventually got to join the Formula One grid as part of the Scuderia Toro Rosso team.
Hartley got the call-up from Toro Rosso, the sister team to Red Bull Racing, to drive in the 2017 World Formula One Championship, and suddenly found himself racing against the world’s elite drivers and teams.
It was the culmination of a long personal journey that had begun with him growing up in a motorsport-focused family in Palmerston North, where his father, Bryan, drove Formula Atlantic single-seaters; Brendon raced go-karts against his older brother, Nelson.
It was that early sibling rivalry that honed Brendon’s determination to win. When 10-year-old Nelson beat six-year-old Brendon in their first official go-kart race against each other, it resulted in a sleepless night for the younger Hartley.
“That [night] was when I realised that I want to win – in everything that I do.”
He soon swapped the karts for Formula Ford single-seaters and won the 2003 Formula Ford Festival at age 12. Two years later, the Toyota Racing Series (TRS) kicked off, and soon became a breeding ground of talented young drivers, attracting entrants from all over the world to race in New Zealand during the Northern Hemisphere winter. Brendon won the first TRS race ever held here, while still too young to legally drive on New Zealand roads.
How did Brendon manage to swap his racing of TRS single-seaters around his local Manfeild circuit for driving state-of-the-art Formula One cars around the glamorous streets of Monaco? He credits his building of a number of influential relationships throughout his career, both commercial and personal, for the way that he was able to establish a successful international career after he won that inaugural first TRS race.
“I think as a New Zealander in any sport, we’re very supported by New Zealand businesses and from an early age I had support in New Zealand. So many racing drivers have similar stories and now my present sponsor, Altherm Window Systems, is another good example of that Kiwi business support.
Altherm Window Systems supplied the windows that Brendon and his wife, Sarah, needed to build their holiday home in Taupo, which will eventually become their permanent home.
It was an invitation to try out for the Red Bull Young Driver program that quickly put Brendon on a fast track towards racing in Europe immediately following the completion of the inaugural TRS series.
“The timing was amazing. At that time, we were desperate for funding. Motorsport costs a lot of money, but I had amazing backers in New Zealand: Peter Johnson, who many DRIVEN readers may have heard of; he also helped Scott Dixon. I had Kenny Smith as a mentor, so I had really amazing people around me - and naturally, my parents. My dad is an engine builder, so it was a real family affair.
“As a 15-year-old, this was all very new. I was on my way over to Europe, I could barely locate Europe on the map, by the way. I was in a totally new world. That was it. The test went well, and they took me on.
“They were obviously looking for a young driver with a bit of experience. I was very lucky in New Zealand that I could start racing cars at 12 years old, so I was two or three years ahead of some of the other people from Europe who were still in go karting, so I had a bit of experience and I fit the bill.”
As a member of the Red Bull young talent pool, Brendon worked hard in a cutthroat competitive environment, competing with distinction in Formula Renault and Formula 3, and establishing a reputation for his ability to extract more speed from a racecar as a test driver and his performance on racing simulators. This led to his invitation to drive for the Toro Rosso F1 team at the US round of the 2017 championship at the Circuit of the Americas, near Austin, Texas. Fortunately, his first experience of a Formula One car several years before had helped Brendon prepare for his first race in one.
“I’d been preparing for that all my life, but I was only 18, so I wasn’t really all that prepared! The first sensations going out of the pits were beyond words. I’d come from Formula Three, which was like driving a lawn mower compared to the F1 car.
“Initially, it felt like you were in warp speed. I just remember everything going past so quickly that I never thought that my brain was gonna speed up. I was braking for the hairpin, but my brain was still back at the previous corner.
“It’s surprising how quickly your brain gets up to speed. How quickly it adapts. There are not many other experiences where you’re having those kinds of sustained forces going through so it’s a totally new thing and I definitely wasn’t physically prepared at 18. No way.
“At the end of the day, I was just hanging on.”
Brendon raced the rest of the 2017 F1 season for Toro Rosso and earned himself a contract as a full-time driver with the team for the 2018 championship. He’d score tenth places at the Azerbaijan and German Grand Prix, and his highest finish was ninth in the US Grand Prix. After 25 race starts, his last was the 2018 Abu Dhabi GP.
“As a young New Zealander from Palmerston North, knowing my roots, the fact that I was there for a short time, I’m incredibly proud of that and there’s no bitterness that it didn’t last longer than it did.”