He fell off the F1 log but achieved the near-impossible: he got back on
Former Red Bull protégé Brendon Hartley is surely Formula 1’s comeback king – booted out of the programme in 2010, he’s reached the top the hard way and intends to enjoy himself this time
Unless Niki Lauda threw a rattlesnake into Lewis Hamilton’s cockpit just before the start, it’s difficult to imagine anyone having a more exciting 2017 United States Grand Prix than Brendon Hartley. The Kiwi’s Formula 1 debut yielded what seems, on the face of it, a solid if unspectacular 13th, but since he’d been parachuted into the Toro Rosso team a few days before the race, having last driven a single-seater in 2012, the consensus was that the boy did well. Brendon handled his surprise gig with equanimity, not looking out of place in cockpit or garage. That proved useful.
There’s an eight-year interval between Brendon’s Toro Rosso drives. Let’s rewind…
It’s December 2009 and there are optimistic Christmas lights in the motorhomes at a dark Jerez as teams gather for the young drivers’ test. Brendon is, logically, Red Bull’s next cab off the rank, having made his F1 testing debut the previous winter and spent 2009 as the official reserve for both Red Bull teams. The problem for Brendon is that he hasn’t been winning races, whereas another Red Bull apprentice by the name of Daniel Ricciardo has been pulling up trees in British F3. It’s Daniel who gets three days to himself in the race-winning RB5. Brendon gets to share the STR4.
Hartley and Ricciardo were – and are – good friends but in Jerez their demeanours couldn’t be more different: Brendon talks about the physical and mental challenges of jumping into an F1 car without much preparation; Daniel’s laughing and bewitched by the experience: he’s so happy he wants to do something anatomically impractical with his car. Unsurprisingly, it’s Daniel who knocks it out of the park in Jerez. Six months later Brendon and Red Bull part company.
Back to the present. If Hartley felt aggrieved at getting kicked to the kerb, he’s diplomatic about it now, with a directness that’s jarring in an F1 paddock. “I guess I wasn’t ready,” he concedes. “I had some success in the early days. I became the reserve driver, had my first F1 test at 18 and I guess I just didn’t deal with the pressure. I stopped enjoying it. I wasn’t happy.”
At 28 Brendon now looks like a man who is enjoying it, comfortable in his own skin, cheerfully confessing to being nothing like ready to drive an F1 car when he arrived in Austin. He maintained that level of cheery nonchalance throughout the mad days that followed, alternating F1 and WEC weekend after weekend, picking up a second WEC title for Porsche in Shanghai, and inking a 2018 F1 deal. Alongside the comeback of a certain lugubrious Pole, Brendon’s return to the fold is the feel-good story for the new season – because everyone likes it when a nice bloke triumphs.
Having been dropped in 2010 by Dr Helmut Marko, éminence grise of the Red Bull motorsports programme, Brendon was the one who initiated contact last summer – not vice versa. It was a brave call since Marko has the sort of penetrating gaze that can crack walnuts. Even Red Bull, however, cannot produce drivers with cookie-cutter regularity. This year it found itself in the rare situation of demand outstripping supply. After four seasons and a poor 2017, Red Bull decided to jettison Daniil Kvyat. Pierre Gasly won the GP2 title and was due his shot – but when Toro Rosso also had to sacrifice Carlos Sainz to get out of its Renault contract, the cupboard was bare.
While no-one saw Brendon coming, with hindsight, it’s a good fit. It’s also worth noting that this year Toro Rosso becomes something like a works outfit. Honda in F1 and Porsche in WEC may be worlds apart – but it can’t hurt having a driver with experience of developing a works programme from the ground-up. It’s a point of view Brendon is happy to endorse: “Working with Porsche made my transition to F1 quite smooth because it’s a similar number of people involved; very similar structure in terms of engineering [and] pressure… At Porsche, I was very heavily involved in the development on every level, so at least I have some experience from that point of view.”
The other thing Le Mans-winning, double world champion Hartley has that his teenage self didn’t is confidence. Not the brittle, cocky sort but the steadier, more reassuring type that comes from having been there, done that. It’s unusual now to see a mature driver heading into a rookie season – but F1 won’t be poorer for someone that came the long way round.