In July 2005 the new intake of nine young applicants for that years MotorSport New Zealand Elite Academy assembled in Dunedin with the aim of Graduating from the Academy. A tough week of classroom lectures, physical conditioning, tutoring in mental, visual and physical acuity that was all originally designed for Air Force jet pilots awaited them all.
Mostly gangly young men of fifteen or sixteen years of age, but with two young driving rally girls for balance, to be a professional racing driver was the stated aim and four of them went on to do just that. Included in that number was Daniel Gaunt, now a professional GT3 driver and Shane van Gisbergen, the current Australian V8 Supercars Champion with the Red Bull team.
There was another, with a thatch of long blonde hair and a body frame that could easily disappear down a crack in the pavement, and his name was Brendon Hartley. Tall, skinny and intense, he was a Formula Ford driver with a clear vision of his future – and that was in single seater racing and, like many others, Formula 1 was the end game.
Brendon was no star at the Academy with some fairly average results but it was clear that the peer pressure of others in that years Academy intake brought out a fierce competitive streak.
His elder brother – Nelson – had already been through the Academy and was also a racing driver. Both siblings had learned their mechanical trade from Father Bryan, himself a competitor and a master engine builder in their home town of Palmerston North, New Zealand.
Nelson was actually the faster of the siblings on track but Brendon soon learned that he did not like being beaten, especially by his own brother.
Towards the end of 2005 Brendon entered the fledgling Toyota Racing Series (TRS) and won the very first race to be held in the series history and came third overall in the Championship. It was then, due mainly to his drives in the TRS, that he was noticed by Red Bull Junior Academy chief Helmut Marko and was swept off to Europe to compete in the Formula Renault Eurocup, displaying a maturity beyond his still tender years.
The next few years were spent in various Junior Formulae, still as a Red Bull Junior, but it was in 2010, while driving for the Tech 1 team with teammate Daniel Ricciardo, that he was dropped from the Red Bull Junior team. By his own admission he made some mistakes and was not yet ready to step up to higher series.
After a couple of difficult years Hartley’s mind-set changed and he started to hassle for drives in anything, anywhere, anytime and landed drives in sports car racing where he reinvented himself and started on the road to becoming a mature, fast and reliable driver.
Before this happened though he had some valuable experience driving the Red Bull Formula 1 car at ‘shake down’ tests and was thought highly enough to be appointed the official reserve driver for both the Toro Rosso and Red Bull Formula 1 teams.
He went on to do a huge amount of simulator work for the Mercedes Formula 1 team, helping to develop what has become the very bench mark of a formula 1 car for the past few years.
Four seasons of driving and developing the cars for the Porsche LMP1 team resulted in a CV that now includes ‘World Endurance Champion’ (twice), and ’24 Hours of Le Mans’ winner.
A call from the Toro Rosso team to drive at the 2017 US Grand Prix was a surprise to all but there can be few drivers with the experience, the CV, and more importantly the talent needed to step into a Formula 1 car at such short notice.
Anything can happen over a Formula 1 Grand Prix weekend, and all manner of issues can arise, but after helping develop the most modern, the most complicated and the fastest cars in road racing, both the sprints of Formula 1 and the long distance versions of LMP1- Brendon Hartley, still just 27 years of age, is better equipped to deal with those issues than most.
After becoming the first New Zealand driver to drive in a Formula 1 Grand Prix for thirty three years, Hartley carries the hopes of the nation on his shoulders. Shoulders that have become a lot more broad than those of the skinny kid of 2005.
Coincidentally the date of the race in Austin this weekend – Hartley’s Formula 1 debut on October 22nd – is the 50th Anniversary to the day, of fellow Kiwi Denny Hulme winning the Formula 1 World Championship at the Mexican GP 1967.
Now that has to be a good omen, doesn’t it?