INSIGHTS

  • THE POWER OF 12 MONTHS IN F1

Report

22 October 2018

When Brendon Hartley arrived at the United States Grand Prix in 2017, he could be forgiven for being a little jet lagged. From Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta one weekend, he’d flown to Japan for the Fuji round of the World Endurance Championship the next, and then straight to Austin for his Formula 1 debut.

Of course, it was a schedule Hartley was happy to take on, having been handed the chance to race in F1 for the first time by Toro Rosso. But looking back on that call-up 12 months later, it was very much a baptism of fire for the New Zealander.

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“It was pretty surreal at the time,” Hartley recalls. “It was a whirlwind of a month or so when I think I raced every weekend for I don’t know how many in a row it was. It was every week a different continent, different timezone, different race car from WEC to F1 to LMP2 as well.

“One of the moments I’ll never forget was actually standing on the grid during the national anthem for my first grand prix. That is a moment I’ll never forget.

“We got the really big driver announcements with Michael Buffer too. Some of the drivers didn’t like it but it was the first time for me and I was happy to come out with the smoke and mirrors, it felt like my moment!”

You might expect the first time driving the car to be another significant moment for Hartley, having waited until the age of 27 to make his F1 race debut. But FP1 in Austin highlighted the magnitude of the task facing him having not been able to do any testing.

“I had a lot on my plate. I hadn’t driven the car. I think the first time exiting the pits, the spoilers and everything weren’t set up correctly on the helmet and I was actually being strangled. At 300kph in a Formula 1 car there’s a huge amount of pressure on the helmet and it was being lifted and that actually took pretty much the first session to sort out.

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“I hadn’t been in an open cockpit car in a long time and aerodynamics are tricky to get right on a Formula 1 car at the best of times and the helmet is part of that. I think my first laps were in the wet and there was a lot to learn in a very short space of time.

“I remember doing a lot of studying of the driver manual - which is about 30 pages long - on the steering wheel and procedures and radio calls. There’s a lot to take in and that’s even before you’ve focused on driving the car as quick as you can.”

But Hartley was up to speed quickly, securing a full-time seat for the 2018 season as Toro Rosso embarked on a new partnership with Honda. With a fresh category came fresh pressure, and even as a champion in the World Endurance Championship, he admits the scrutiny drivers come under in F1 is on another level.

“You are in the spotlight a lot more than what I’ve been used to in the past. I felt somewhat prepared for that, being at Porsche, representing them at Le Mans, that’s also a high pressure scenario. But it is a bit of a pressure cooker in the Formula 1 environment where everything is being analysed by a lot of different people, some of them who don’t know what they’re talking about to be perfectly honest!

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“You’re under the microscope and that can be tricky. At some points I’ve had to deal with things I think maybe I shouldn’t have. Three races into the season my future was being questioned. People were saying I was going to be replaced after just two or three races when I’d signed a long-term contract. I don’t really think that was an ideal situation for me to be in.

“To be put under that pressure so early on I don’t think was completely fair. But at the same time I think I came out of the other side of that a lot stronger.

“Even if I haven’t had the results I feel I’ve maybe deserved, I know that I’ve got stronger, but I still don’t think it’s an ideal scenario that I was put in. But there’s been a lot to learn and I feel like I’ve got stronger and stronger. I feel like I’ve got unlucky at times, there’s been some frustration, but there’s also been a lot for me to be proud of.”

Hartley’s first point in Baku doesn’t rank in his own list of highlights, but a few races later he recalls a specific Saturday performance as standing out, alongside the recent stunning qualifying result for Toro Rosso at Suzuka.

“I guess Canada qualifying was a big one for me. It was just after all this talk and rumours and having to deal with that, and then actually punching back and outqualifying my teammate by half a second. That felt good to show everyone ‘You know what, I am strong, I can do this and even if you put me under all this pressure I can still perform’. Unfortunately my race ended on lap one with Lance Stroll.

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“There’s been other moments. My lap in Q2 in Budapest under extremely tricky conditions - I was sent out late by the team with a small issue - and I knocked out Fernando Alonso and Daniel Ricciardo on a track that was getting worse and worse. Getting through to Q3, that was a big lap for me.

“And probably qualifying P6 as well felt great in front of Honda’s home crowd in Suzuka. Again tricky conditions when I had to deliver with no room for error, that felt good. Unfortunately the race didn’t turn out our way, both cars struggling with tyres and both of us dropping back. I guess those are a few of the highlights, there’s been a few downs as well, not all of them in my control, but at the start of the year there was definitely a lot of things that I could have done better.”

The topic of tyres is one the 28-year-old revisits often as one of the biggest differences between F1 and any other category he’s raced in. Hartley sees it as an area of his driving he has developed the most over the past year, but it’s more off-track that he feels he has learned the biggest lessons.

“Honestly I wish some of the races had gone better or fallen my way but I tend to look forward and not back. So right at this second I’m more just focused on what I can do right this weekend and hopefully get a good result.

“That’s been my strategy during the whole year really, just to not dwell on previous races or what could’ve been and try and keep the focus on the short-term and the next race and the task at hand and the now.”

The past year of Hartley’s life has been a whirlwind that has also included getting married to his long-term partner Sarah in January. But despite so many new experiences, he doesn’t think the past 12 months have had a major impact on him personally.

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“I like to think I haven’t changed that much. Obviously I’ve grown up in Europe - I left home at 15 - so every year of course I’m growing but I like to think I still know where I came from. I still have the same values. Sarah and I have grown together, we’ve been through tough times, we’ve been through good times, which I think is also important for me is, as a person, to have been through some of that.

“I don’t think much has changed really, especially in my private life not much is changing. I’m still a pretty simple guy, I love getting on my mountain bike or my road bike and just being normal, so I like to think I’m not too pretentious and precious about being a Formula 1 driver and just get on with being relatively normal in this crazy world, or in this crazy life, being a Formula 1 driver.”

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