“When you are fully focused behind the wheel, things slow down,” says Kiwi racing sensation Brendon Hartley. “Nothing is on your mind other than all the feelings and sensations required to get the most out of the race car. That being said, we are constantly talking to our engineer via radio and sometimes discuss certain strategies or settings for the car. You learn to zone in and out of the trance-like focus when needed.”
Last year the 28-year-old driver made his Formula One debut for Scuderia Toro Rosso at the US Grand Prix, having already carved out an impressive endurance racing portfolio, including a win at the 2017 24 Hours of Le Mans with teammates Earl Bamber and Timo Bernhard, a legendary event that, says Brendon, win or lose, “brings grown men to tears”.
“I really enjoyed the team element of endurance racing, and working together and learning from you teammates,” Brendon tells me. “We formed bonds that will last a lifetime.” Formula One, however, is a different beast, a “cut throat sport” that makes it “impossible to have that same relationship”. “Of course, you share certain things to help the team and develop the car,” he adds. “But ultimately, your teammate in F1 is the first person you want to beat. Endurance racing and F1 are different, but the same set of skills are required behind the wheel. As a kid, I grew up dreaming of F1.”
Having grown up in a racing environment (his dad, Bryan, had competed in a number of series, including Formula Atlantic), Brendon was just six when he first experienced the thrill of the throttle in a kart racing his older brother, Nelson (named after legendary Formula One driver, Nelson Piquet). “You could say racing was in our blood,” says Brendon. “I think my childhood was like most other Kiwis’, but the big difference was that I spent most weekends at race tracks. My earliest memories are of watching my father at Manfield Park.”
The driver states that what most shaped him was leaving his school, friends and family to pursue his racing dream in Europe. “I moved to a small town in east Germany and had to somewhat fend for myself,” he recalls. “I got very good at cooking pasta with red sauce!”
The first decade away was a chaotic one, filled with “ups and downs”. “I had great support from my family and management in New Zealand, as well as my then girlfriend, now wife, Sarah, but it was by no means straight forward,” he says. At 17, he won a European championship and a year later a chance to fulfil his dream of progressing to Formula One. “But after a string of poor results and a downward spiral of confidence, I lost my drive,” he admits. “The years that followed taught me the most, and so I’m very proud, with the help of my family and supporters, to have worked my way back to where I am today.”
I ask him what lessons he takes from victory and defeat, and the answer is the same for both: to never give up. But it wasn’t just other drivers that Brendon had to battle on the way up — there were big bouts of homesickness too. “I loved learning about all the different cultures and seeing first hand the majority of the countries across Europe, but especially in those first years I did miss home,” he recounts. “I will never forget the feeling I used to get when finally getting to come home at the end of each year. It’s a different story now, I’m still a proud Kiwi of course, but Sarah and I have made a life over here, and I come home to New Zealand for a holiday but am equally happy to get back to our life that we have over here. New Zealand will always be home though.”
Words: Jamie Christian Desplaces
Image: Porsche LMP1 919 Hybrid driver Brendon Hartley of New Zealand outside the team garage after qualifications for the 6 Hours of Fuji, the seventh round of the 2017 FIA World Endurance Championship at Fuji Speedway in Shizuoka, Japan on October 14, 2017.