Three years ago, Brendon Hartley was on the fast track to Formula One.
As a Red Bull test and reserve driver, the New Zealander, who moved to Europe at the age of 16, had come up through the single-seater ranks and showed promise in Formula Renault 3.5, being touted as the energy drink giant’s next greatest star.
But after being dropped from the Red Bull Junior Team midway through the 2010 season, Hartley was forced to re-evaluate his long-term prospects for F1, despite later making repeated attempts of breaking into the sport’s pinnacle.
“Growing up, my dream was F1,” Hartley says in a SPEED.com interview. “But the start of last year, I realized that it’s not as easy to get there as meets the eye. There are only 22 seats and the majority of the seats are taken up by drivers who are paying to be there. I’m not saying I deserve to be there more than anyone else.
“I had a big chance and was very close to being a Formula One driver, probably more than people realize. But at that moment in my career, I was young and a bit lost within my head and I didn’t cope with the pressure I had around me and missed out on the opportunity.”
While continuing in open-wheel for two more years, including stints in GP2, Hartley made the shift to sports car racing in 2012, joining Murphy Prototype’s LMP2 program at the 24 Hours of Le Mans and in the European Le Mans Series, in what was meant to be a full-season program.
However, the shortened ELMS schedule, due to low car count, ended up being a blessing in disguise for the now 23-year-old.
Petit Le Mans played host to the season finale, with Hartley catching the eye of Starworks Motorsport team owner Peter Baron, who was helping the Irish squad with strategy that weekend.
“I’ve put a lot of people through a lot of different cars and you can see how fast they come up to speed at a new track they’ve never seen before,” Baron explains. “How Brendon did it, I knew I needed to get him in a Daytona Prototype to see what he could do.”
Less than three months later, Hartley returned to the U.S. and began his baptism by fire with the reigning North American Endurance Champions and driving a ground-pounding Daytona Prototype for the first time. And as he quickly learned, the 2,200-pound DP was a stark contrast to what had become used to.
“I was pretty confident going in that I could jump in any car and be quick,” Hartley says. “But I have to say it took me longer than I thought to drive these Daytona Prototypes. It’s pretty different from what I’m used to and I think they’re quite quirky cars. The nature of Daytona and you have five drivers, and the testing time goes pretty quickly.
“It wan’t really until the race that I started to understand the car. I was really happy with how I did in the end.”
While walking away from Daytona with a much better understanding of the DP car, it wasn’t until the second round at the new Circuit of The Americas where Hartley’s talents began to shine, and in a big way.
In fact, he came less than 30 minutes away from victory until his Riley-Ford collided with a GT car in traffic in the dying stages of the race.
However, Hartley rebounded, setting the fastest race lap at the very next round at Barber Motorsports Park before repeating that feat again two races later in Detroit, both at tracks he had never been to before.
And in June, he teamed with Pierre Kaffer and season-long gentleman driver Scott Mayer for a third place finish at the Sahlen’s Six Hours of The Glen.
Often faced with a hefty deficit before climbing into the No. 8 car each race, Hartley’s comeback drives have been downright impressive, especially for a driver that has not only had to come to grips of American racing, but also be faced with learning new tracks every weekend.
What’s been the Kiwi’s secret to adapting so quickly to the Rolex Series, a championship typically dominated by seasoned veterans? It comes with having experience in all types of cars, thanks to some valuable seat time at a point when he was pondering his future.
“It sounds kind of silly but last year, I did a lot of classic racing in Europe,” he explains. “It taught me a lot. I was driving all sorts of cars, like old GT40s, Minis, Lotus 15 and Nigel Mansell’s Lotus. I was racing all these different things and that gave me a bit of confidence that I’m not just a single-seater driver.
“Over the last two years with the way things have gone, I’ve taken a lot of experience. There were times in my career where my confidence was low, but it’s quite high right now. I’m capable of jumping into anything.
“At the end, I take a simple view. It’s a car, it has four wheels and you have to find the quickest way around the track.”
Hartley has been doing just that, not only in the Rolex Series but also continuing his relationship with Murphy in Europe, while also jugging his “day job” as a sim/test driver for Mercedes F1.
While it’s made for a hectic year of international travel, it’s opened his eyes to new avenues, and the strong possibility of making a long-term career in sports car racing.
“I’ve realized there’s a lot more potential for me in sports cars right now,” Hartley says. “I love it as well. There’s been times in my career where I wasn’t enjoying my racing, which is completely wrong. That’s not how it should be.
“I’m really happy on how things are going. It would be really nice to land a factory drive but at the moment, working with guys like Peter and LMP2 teams in Europe, I’m enjoying myself a lot.”Brendon Hartley, ELMS, F1, GRAND-AM, Le Mans, Sports Cars, Starworks Motorsport