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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.

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