Brendon Hartley Q&A: The Le Mans winner on his F1 break and respect from peers
There were three things which Brendon Hartley didn’t know would happen to him at the start of the 2017 season. For any driver, his/her aim is to get a championship win. In addition, for a driver competing in the FIA World Endurance Championship, the goal is also to get the coveted outright win in Le Mans 24 Hours.
With Hartley, the 28-year-old managed to get both, taking his second WEC drivers’ title – this time with Timo Bernhard and Earl Bamber – and also his maiden Le Mans win with Porsche in the LMP1 category after four years of trying. To add to an already exciting season, an unexpected turn of events landed him his Formula 1 debut with Toro Rosso in the US Grand Prix.
The F1 drive came out of the blue for the Kiwi, who had been a Red Bull junior and was close to a Toro Rosso drive in 2009, before he was dropped from the programme in 2010, which eventually led him to move full-time in endurance racing in 2013.
With four races under his belt in 2017, Hartley is now gearing up for a full season in 2018 in Toro Rosso, partnering with Pierre Gasly. The whole episode turned much like a fairytale happening, with Hartley receiving a second chance to live his dream.
After two months of rigorous travel and racing, Hartely sat down with Darshan Chokhani in the Toro Rosso hospitality on the Sunday of the 2017 Abu Dhabi GP talking at length on his past, WEC/Le Mans win, subsequent F1 drive and more:
Q) So, it has been some year for you, how will you sum it up?
BH: Yeah, an amazing year for me. I won a world championship, then Le Mans and made my Formula 1 debut, so definitely the biggest year of my career. The last seven-eight weeks have been tough, one race to the next straightaway, which is mentally and physically quite demanding, but I think when I look back on the year, I’ll be very satisfied with what’s happened. Some of what happened has potentially changed my life, so it’s a huge opportunity to head off with a full Formula 1 drive next year.
Q) How differently you had to prepare for the whole month of racing and traveling then?
BH: I couldn’t really prepare for this whole month because it came as quite a surprise that I’d be in Formula 1. I have tried not to train too much and tried to keep on top of my health. There’s been a lot to do and I think I am pretty happy with how I have managed it.
Q) As you mentioned your three accomplishments in 2017, where will you put them in the Top 3 order though?
BH: I think the Le Mans 24 Hours win is still the biggest moment of my career, something that remains in the history book forever, to win the Le Mans with Porsche. I think without that win, I probably wouldn’t have had the opportunity to be in Formula 1, so the win in the 24 Hours is a lot for the CV. Then it has to be making my debut in Formula 1, which was a huge moment for me. Obviously, you always have another goal and so the next step is to score my first F1 points, the step after that is a podium and then look for race victory and the championship win. In Formula 1, it is okay, I have arrived, but now it is to work ahead and the goal keeps shifting, obviously.
Q) You still have the Porsche tie-up, any race next year or future? Or a return to Le Mans?
BH: For the moment, there are no plans. I think it is very important to keep my focus on the one thing, because there’s still a lot to learn in F1.
Q) Have you kept your Porsche link, since we know Red Bull/Toro Rosso are really hard in this business, especially with giving an opportunity and then taking it back?
BH: No, no [nothing like that]. Porsche have been my life for the last few years and I hope I can keep some of my link there.
Q) So, in your interviews coming to F1, you have mentioned how you were not ready when you were forced to move out. Was there no disappointment that you never got the chance to drive the car full-time before being left out?
BH: No, I did get my chances. I was very close to getting a Formula 1 drive in 2009, Jamie Alguersuari took the drive ahead of me and I was the reserve driver. I wasn’t performing at that time, I didn’t handle the pressure really well and wasn’t ready for that. So, in 2010, I was dropped from the [Red Bull] programme. From my point of view it was completely just and I picked myself up and learnt a lot from that. I became stronger driver because of it. I remained involved in Formula 1 until 2012 with Mercedes, with one test trackside, but it was more of a development role, there was never really chance to be in the race cars as race driver, so then the move to endurance racing was a good one and also it has taught me a lot, dealing with a programme such as Porsche LMP1. I think it is a very good preparation to arrive in the Formula 1 paddock.
Q) How much has Mark Webber played a role, whether in WEC and or getting the F1 drive?
BH: Yeah, he’s become a friend, we were teammates in LMP1 so obviously learnt as much as I could from him, that’s the nature of endurance racing, you share all the information across three drivers and you have got three minds to work. I was lucky to have him as a teammate and as a close friend, so of course, he has given me all the advice he can offer for me arriving in the F1 paddock on a short notice.
Q) Coming to your F1 drives, what has been troubling you? Is it the car issues or more like the case of trying to settle in?
BH: Okay, obviously the engine issues have been a bit disappointing. If you look, especially in Mexico, in qualifying, I could have been 11th or 12th - that was disappointing to have an engine problem there, to have another penalty in the race. I took good steps through the first three races. I was happy with the preparations with those races and I think no one expected me to arrive immediately without any preparation at all….so yeah, I am satisfied with how I approached it. I actually quite enjoyed it. Now, I am ready for a quite break and recharge my batteries and have a solid preparation for next year.
Q) What's the most challenging part, coming from a more non-traditional route to F1?
BH: I think in recent years, it isn’t traditional, but in the past it was. If you look at Michael Schumacher or Mark Webber, they also came from sportscars actually, so in the past maybe it was more normal. But in recent years, the GP2 [F2] being the most obvious choice with same tyres as well. So, that was probably the hardest thing, to understand these Pirelli tyres, which is complicated to get the most out of and I was working very close with the engineers to really extract the performance out of it, especially over one lap because the small difference you do, can result in big loss of lap times. This was probably the biggest part of the job to kind of understand the tyres and anyways as a driver that’s the hardest part of the job, getting the most of the tyre, the only part of the car that is touching the ground.
Q) How is the F1 environment different from the last time you were in it?
BH: It is obviously different. Now I am a race driver, back then I was a reserve driver, when there’s a not a lot to do in the paddock other than attending meetings and not really contributing. I feel really relaxed and comfortable in the paddock now. I have respect from the other teams and other drivers I have known in the paddock. I felt really at home straightaway which is nice.
Q) Do they see you differently than before?
BH: Yeah, I think most people in the paddock respects Le Mans and what it means to get the most out of the LMP1 car, working with the Porsche in a high pressure environment, I think that has respect.
Q) So, finally, your plans for winter break and 2018?
BH: First will be to recharge and then continuing training. There will be some work with the team and testing. Right now I haven’t thought a lot about that, I have been focused one week to the next on the current job.