Brendon Hartley makes F1 debut

Few things are more important to me than motorsport. While my first love has always been Porsche rally cars, the absolute top line of motorsport in my eyes will always be Formula 1, so I am super excited that 2015 WEC Champion and current WEC series leader, Porsche’s Brendon Hartley, is racing at the US Grand Prix in Austin this weekend in one of James Key’s beautiful Toro Rosso F1 cars.

To me, Hartley is one of the top five drivers in the world and easily capable of winning in F1. A former Red Bull driver and Toro Rosso reserve driver, who was dropped from the Red Bull programme eight years ago for whatever reason, Brendon has been typically candid in his own assessment of how things were back then and insists he is now far more prepared for the psychological challenges of this weekend’s opportunity.

“It’s a dream,” Brendon told Sky F1’s Ted Kravitz in his first interview at Circuit of the Americas. “I have dreamt about this moment all my life and support back home has been crazy. Honestly, I am trying to take the pressure off myself and tell myself “it’s just another race, it’s just another car”. In reality, I know that’s not quite true: it’s not just any other race and it’s not just any other car, but I’m trying to separate myself from that.

“Obviously, the support back home has been incredible. It’s been quite a while since we saw a Kiwi in Formula 1 and we’re very proud people. There’s a few of us in the motorsport world doing a good job, raising the flag at a very high level, but it’s been a long time since one of us was in Formula 1, so I’m well aware of what that means.”

Kravitz asked Brendon’s former Porsche team mate, Nico Hulkenberg, whether he was pleased for his former colleague. “Yeah, it’s fun and quite cool,” said Nico, “I didn’t see that coming. “No,” agreed Ted. “They needed a Red Bull person with a superlicence, so that narrowed it down to [Sebastien] Buemi or him. So I guess it’s him. Would you expect him to pick up this F1 lark pretty easily?”

“Probably a little bit more challenging for him than for Carlos [Sainz, who is switching teams to Renault from this weekend], because he hasn’t sat in an F1 car for quite some time now, but the WEC cars also produce a lot of downforce and he has raced here quite recently, so that should help him, but it will be interesting to see how he feels these cars and how he gets on.”

“I guess it’s a bit of an advantage for me coming here recently,” notes Brendon, “but I think that the biggest ask is driving a modern Formula 1 car and that’s going to be the bigger learning curve. In some ways I feel prepared for this: a lot more prepared than in 2009-2010 when I was a reserve driver. I wasn’t ready at that time.

“I know Max [Verstappen] came in at a very young age, but at that age I wasn’t ready. I’ve learned a lot since then. Being with Porsche in the LMP1 taught me a lot: high pressure scenario, representing Porsche, working with guys like Mark Webber and Timo [Bernhard] and you learn a lot off each other in that environment when you actually work together. So from that side, I feel very prepared and mentally strong.

“Unfortunately, in terms of driving a modern Formula 1 car I’m completely underprepared – i.e. not prepared at all – but I think I’ll know a lot more after Free Practice 1 tomorrow. I’m looking forward to stop talking about what I’m expecting. Just get that first session under way, see how I feel in the car, see where I’m at and then figure out what I’ve got to work on to get towards Sunday afternoon, which is the big debut.”

What’s interesting about the debut is that Hartley himself set the wheels in motion, calling Red Bull’s Helmut Marko when Porsche canned its LMP1 programme earlier this year and offering his services should a spare seat materialise. As the twisted handshakes of the McLaren/Toro Rosso  Honda/Renault engine swap deal unwound, it turned out that Toro Rosso had been left without a driver for Austin.

A good performance in Texas could potentially lead to more F1 activity, but Brendon insists that no one has spoken of this as yet and no performance targets have been set. It is hard to imagine that Brendon’s considerable talent won’t find some pace in the car, so that will make all three practice sessions unmissable viewing. Hartley will be off to IndyCar if this doesn’t lead on to better things and F1 will be poorer because of it. Fingers crossed for a great weekend!

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