Analysis: Why Hartley’s F1 debut was so impressive

A solid Formula 1 debut for Toro Rosso at Austin has turned LMP1 ace Brendon Hartley into a serious future grand prix racing prospect - but this should come as little surprise given his background, says Adam Cooper.

Analysis: Why Hartley’s F1 debut was so impressive

Things have moved very quickly for Brendon Hartley. Just a couple of weeks ago, he was pondering life after Porsche, and a possible future in IndyCar. Now he has not only made his Grand Prix debut with Toro Rosso, he’s also being lined up for a full season in 2018.

Hartley’s entry into F1 at the age of 27 is a fantastic story for the sport. In recent years it’s been all about youth, with drivers seemingly over the hill if they don’t make it by 22 or 23. For someone to get a chance after diverting into sportscar racing must give hope to many drivers who have seemingly missed the boat.

But should we be surprised that the Kiwi arrived from nowhere and performed so competently? Not really, because his time with Porsche has given him some fantastic experience, just as Sauber-Mercedes did the same for Michael Schumacher back in 1990-’91.

A more rounded driver

In his teens, it was clear Hartley was a considerable talent, good enough to secure Red Bull support that took him all the way to the fringes of F1 as a test and reserve driver.

However, amid a surplus of talent coming through the programme, he fell out of favour, and he was dropped. A brief spell with Mercedes after that, which saw him running in the simulator and on track, led nowhere.

It was the New Zealander's subsequent move to sportscars, initially in a low-key way in LMP2, that was the making of him. Picked up by Porsche for the start of its LMP1 programme in 2014, he’s spent four years racing extremely fast cars that contain even more technology that F1 machinery.

He’s learned about tyres and fuel saving, worked with engineers at a high level, and a major manufacturer. He’s also become a team player, something that comes with the territory in endurance racing.

“There was no bitterness at all,” Hartley said of his departure from Red Bull. “I understood I didn’t do the job. I had a big chance to be in F1 back then, I simply wasn’t ready. I’m a much different driver now. Going through that was good for my career because I learned a lot from it. I realised what I needed to change, I had a great opportunity at Porsche.

“I have been able to grow, I’ve worked with the likes of Mark Webber and my other teammate Timo [Bernhard]. You work as a team and learn a lot from each other. Being a Porsche driver at Le Mans is high pressure, you’re representing Porsche.

“I’ve grown a lot as a driver, I fully accepted back then I wasn’t ready and I didn’t do a job at that very moment for a number of reasons. I also know I’m a lot stronger than I was back then.”

He’s a much better driver than he was when he was dropped by Red Bull, and he’s gone through the growing up process that anyone experiences as they move through their 20s. In other words, he’s now a complete package. And that’s what he was able to sell to Red Bull this time round.

To Hartley's credit, he simply got on the phone to the man who dropped him, Helmut Marko, and told him he’s now ready. Some drivers might have just sat waiting for the phone to ring, but his pro-active approach could be game changing for his career.

The timing proved to be fortunate. Carlos Sainz was going to Renault and Pierre Gasly coming in, but at the same time Daniil Kvyat was out of favour, and there was potentially a seat for 2018. Sebastien Buemi was available for Austin, but not for 2018, and anyway he’s seen at Red Bull as yesterday’s man. So Hartley got the nod.

The only thing he was missing was recent experience of racing single-seaters, and that’s the process that started last weekend, rather handily at a track where he raced and won with Porsche just a few weeks before the US GP. Time in the Red Bull simulator gave him something of a headstart, but there’s no substitute for getting out in the real car.

Brendon Hartley, Scuderia Toro Rosso STR12
Brendon Hartley, Scuderia Toro Rosso STR12

Photo by: Sutton Images

On the first day, Hartley was hampered by an issue with his helmet: “I came here with a different helmet than what the other guys used in this team, and I had huge lift, which was effectively strangling me… The Bell guys did an awesome job to get the right wings on the helmet, and we also added a little windscreen.”

But, that mishap aside, Hartley's debut weekend went like clockwork. Grid penalties meant that he was always going to start from the back, which took the pressure off in some ways, and also meant that he didn’t run a normal programme over the two days.

“We knew we had a penalty so we were pretty limited on tyres," he said. "Daniil was able to do three runs in Q1. Tyre allocation, we went for the race, because we knew qualifying was over, no matter how I went. It was always going to be tough, I knew that. It’s F1, it should be tough.

“In general I’m happy with how the weekend’s gone, I haven’t been off the track, I’ve improved step-by-step, which is the goal that they asked me to do, they wanted me to take a steady progression and not lose any track time, which is what I’ve done.”

Qualifying learning curve

Inevitably, qualifying was the biggest test Hartley faced: “F1 qualifying, first one, it’s obviously tough, and I’m super underprepared. Dropping the fuel, getting one lap out of the car, there’s a lot to learn with this tyre. It’s super peaky, tyre prep on the out lap is very crucial.

"Daniil had three runs, I had two runs, but I feel I left a little bit on the table from where I was at in FP3. But that’s the learning curve.

“The track temp went up four degrees, what happened to the tyre, that was an unknown for me… I know now what I would do differently, tyre prep, out lap, how to get the tyres in the right temperature across the line. They’re really sensitive.

“For me coming in the first weekend and having no experience on that. I’m relying on the team for help. It’s a big learning process, and if we were to go and do the session again, I’d do it differently. But I think I should be happy with how it’s gone, honestly. Like I say it’s been steep progress all the time.”

Brendon Hartley, Scuderia Toro Rosso STR12
Brendon Hartley, Scuderia Toro Rosso STR12

Photo by: Sutton Images

Hartley is noted at Porsche for being good both on saving fuel and the tyres. In LMP1, drivers can go can flat out pretty much all day long – but they still have to massage the tyres.

“[We drive] to the grip," he explained. "The thing is you can do the same laptime and destroy the tyre. So when we say we’re driving flat out, that’s something we do testing for. On the long runs I felt pretty good, and comfortable. Definitely to get that peak performance out of one lap on low fuel, when you get on it, that’s definitely the more challenging bit from my side.

"Also here we’re going as fast as we can, but you can one tenth quicker and completely destroy the tyres, having that judgement as a driver, and that feel, is a big part of the game.

“The Pirelli is very, very different from the [Michelin] tyre that I’m used to, especially over one lap, that was the biggest challenge. High speed was a bit of an eye opener initially, F1 cars are incredibly quick at the moment, it tries to rip your neck off.

“That took a bit of getting used to, but to be honest I’m almost there in the high speed. I think the big thing now is to fully understand those tyres, because on temperature and wear there’s a lot of critical factors that you have to manage.”

Hartley admitted that jumping from one car to the other wasn’t easy, and on occasion he hadn’t quite got things right.

"Between the LMP1 car and the F1, they’re equally complicated, but all completely different, completely different processes and buttons," he said. "I feel pretty on top of it.

"There’s been the odd time that I didn’t activate the DRS, which is something I’m not used to. There’s been a couple of really minor mistakes, but I feel I’ve got on top of most of that for the race. It’s probably a helpful thing that I’ve been jumping in and out of so many cars, but the hardest thing to learn on any car is the tyre.

"That’s the biggest part of the driver’s job, to get the most out of that grip, to maximise that, if it’s over one lap, or if it’s over a long run. So understanding those tyres is the biggest challenge.”

He also had to get used to standing starts, and racing wheel to wheel – in sportscars there’s a bit more leeway.

“Standing starts are something I haven’t done for a long time," he admitted. "Unfortunately for me they’ve made the rules harder for the drivers over the last couple of years, in terms of help that the systems can give for starts.

“In terms of going wheel to wheel, like you say in LMP1 I know they’re long races, but we also run toe to toe and race each other pretty hard, that I’m not too worried about.

“The team’s been really positive, what they’re telling me is that they’re really happy with what I’ve been doing. I guess they really respect that I have been thrown in at the deep end, and they’re really happy with the job I’ve done so far. At least that’s what they’ve told me.”

Brendon Hartley, Scuderia Toro Rosso STR12
Brendon Hartley, Scuderia Toro Rosso STR12

Photo by: Sam Bloxham / LAT Images

An assured race

The race could hardly gave gone any better. The start wasn’t great, but he made it safely to the flag in 13th place, learning lessons all the while, especially with regard to the tyres.

“It was the first time I’ve put 20 laps on these Pirellis, so it was going into the darkness in terms of what was going to happen," he recalled. "At the end of the last stint I started to understand a bit more, and was pretty happy with the performance."

What impressed many people was the mature and calm approach that Hartley took, as well as his sheer enthusiasm. He seemed to be bubbling with excitement at simply finally taking part in a Grand Prix weekend.

“It’s been really nice coming back to the paddock," he said. "I know a few of the people, I know a few of the drivers, the team has been incredible with me, they’ve welcomed me with open arms, shared everything, and done everything to help me to get up to speed quickly.

"I have a good feeling here, and I’ve got great people around me. I’ve been getting advice from everyone I can. Daniel Ricciardo is a great mate as well, and Mark [Webber]’s got such a lot of experience in F1. Nothing specific, just it’s all about the details, working with the team, and keeping calm.

“Obviously I dreamed of this since my earliest memories. It’s surreal being here, and as soon as I knew it was happening, I made the decision, I didn’t want to come here with pressure and nerves… And anyway, it wouldn’t have been good for me.

"I’ve come here with the attitude I want to enjoy it, I want to make the most of it obviously, but I want to be relaxed. I know I perform better like that, and so far that’s what I’ve done.”

The bottom line is that his new-found maturity helped to carry Hartley through: “I guess as a 27-year-old that’s been a lot easier for me than as a young chap, and that’s something that I feel a lot stronger at than in the past. I have come here relaxed and not thinking about those things.”

Daniel Ricciardo, Red Bull Racing and Brendon Hartley, Scuderia Toro Rosso on the drivers parade
Daniel Ricciardo, Red Bull Racing and Brendon Hartley, Scuderia Toro Rosso on the drivers parade

Photo by: Sutton Images

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