When he first turned up in the Formula One paddock back in 2008, he looked more like an aspiring rock star with his blond hair and baggy jeans than a test driver. He can actually play the guitar, but he prefers to leave the live performances to someone else. Behind the cool exterior was a shy young man. He was only 19, but already had 13 years’ of experience as a racing driver. He started with go-karts at the age of 6, inspired by his father Bryan, who drove in various racing series. Brendon’s older brother Nelson, named after Nelson Piquet, was already ten when Brendon was allowed to join him for the first time. His older brother was faster, and Brendon still remembers the sleepless night that followed. “That was when I realised that I can’t lose. I want to win. In everything I do.”
Back home in New Zealand – Brendon Hartley grew up in Palmerston North on the North Island – he launched into formula racing. After a series of wins in Formula Ford amongst other series, it was soon evident that he had the talent to make a career from racing, but lived at the wrong end of the world. At the age of 16 he leapt in at the deep end – Europe. He took up quarters in the east of Germany and raced in a two litre Formula Renault in the German and European Championships. In 2007 he won the World Series by Renault, a win that would become a defining time for him in a foreign country. He joined the Red Bull talent pool and worked hard. “It’s quite simple, if you don’t put the effort in, nobody is going to invest in you. I couldn’t have gone on without it. There was a lot of pressure, but most of it was from me anyway.”
Then he had a coup de main in 2008 at the Formula 3 Grand Prix in Macau: starting position 20, he finished third including fastest lap of the race. He was still taken by complete surprise when the phone call came from Red Bull asking if he could stand in for the injured Mark Webber at a Formula One test. “Wow, this was what I had been working for all my life. I phoned home straight away and let the phone ring until I had woken my whole family.” And he did well. 83 laps. That was torture for his neck, being exposed to these kinds of forces for the first time. He moved to Milton Keynes in the UK, near his team, and at least giving him the chance to live somewhere where they speak his language.
He had a Formula One contract up to and including 2013 – first as a tester for Red Bull Racing, and then for the Mercedes AMG Petronas Formula 1 Team. His simulator work was highly regarded, which the F1 teams used to cushion the restrictive test requirements. But a racing driver has to race. In 2012 he started his second career as a long distance racer. European Le Mans Series, Grand Am, 12 hours in Bathurst, 24 hours in Daytona and in Le Mans are races he has had under his belt for some time now. “There are so many great races left”, he says. “I am open for anything with four wheels and an engine. But my goal and hope was that one day I would attract the attention of a manufacturer. The fact that it is Porsche, the most successful brand at Le Mans – it’s a dream come true.” The 24 hours of Le Mans is the most emotional race in the world for him: “It’s an emotional rollercoaster – I’ve never seen so many grown men with tears in their eyes.”