Quick chat with…Brendon Hartley. 2015 World Endurance champion

If you’d mentioned to Brendon Hartley in 2012 that, just three years later, he would be a World Champion with one of the most prestigious sports car manufacturers on the planet…well, let’s just say he’d have been a little sceptical. Thanks to ties and a sponsorship program with Red Bull, the young Kiwi tasted championship success early in Eurocup Formula Renault 2.0 in 2007, as well as race victories in British Formula 3 as he pushed to achieve his goal of a Formula 1 seat with his Austrian patriarch. A reserve driver position for Red Bull Racing for both 2009 and 2010 meant, surely, it was only a matter of time before his F1 debut with Toro Rosso.  

A succession of disappointing results though, plus renewed support for up and comers Daniel Ricciardo and Jean-Eric Vergne, meant Hartley was out of a sponsor and out of a drive at the end of 2011. Impressive one-off performances at Le Mans, and a determination to keep racing though, meant the biggest opportunity of his career arrived with Porsche in 2014. As he explains, it went quite well…

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So Brendon, took you a while, but you finally got to do some racing laps in a Porsche 911…

“Yeah, it’s been fun. There’s a lot of cars here this weekend, and a lot of good drivers out there, so a lot of new experiences for me in my first Porsche 911 race. But I’m really impressed with the championship level, and so far, our race is going pretty well. We’re leading, and there’s been some great strategy calls in the pit stops to get us ahead, and we have a great driver line-up. So I’m keeping my fingers crossed for the rest of the race.”

Be honest, did you really expect to be in the overall lead in your first ever race in a 911?  

“I didn’t really know what to expect, but everyone I spoke with before this weekend told me that the team [Herberth Motorsport] was great before I arrived, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised to see how it’s been working with the team. And as I say, it’s a very strong driver line-up. I have to say, our silver drivers – or gentleman drivers – are incredibly impressive. So, yeah, we’re genuinely in the fight but there’ still a long way to go.”

What drew you to the Dubai 24 Hours in the first place?

“Well I was really keen to do a race in a 911, as I said. I was also looking at this year’s Bathurst 12 Hours, which didn’t happen in the end, but kind of a long term goal of mine is to do the Nordschleife 24 hours. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a while, and although it won’t happen this year because of the timing with Le Mans, when the opportunity came up to have the first taste of a racing 911, I jumped at it. And it’s a great time of year before the World Endurance Championship season starts, so there’s a lot of reasons why this weekend made sense. I’m always learning out there, and especially with 98 cars on-track, there’s always something to take away from it.”

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Speaking of the 2017 WEC season, obviously there’s a few changes ahead with neither Audi nor your former teammate Mark Webber on the grid…

“Yeah, we’re going to miss Mark for sure, but he’s still going to be hanging around and helping in the background. But we’re excited to welcome Earl [Bamber]. I know him very well from New Zealand and we’ve raced each other since we were 7 years old, so it’s been quite incredible we’ve both ended up here, and I’m sure this is going to be another strong line-up.

“Obviously it’s sad to lose Audi too, no question about that, and while I think we’re looking strong for the title, we fully expect it to be a close fight this year. Toyota was very fast last year, they almost won Le Mans, they won their home race [in Fuji], and they were strong at the end of the season. We’ve made some big updates though for 2017, and we expect them to have done the same, so we shall see.”

What lessons did you take from your 2016 WEC season?

“Well, there was obviously an element of luck at Spa and Le Mans. Both races we were leading, and we had issues: Silverstone, obviously we had a big crash, and I recovered from that very well, went straight out at Spa and took pole position, then we led the race. But then we went on to win four races, so I think we were very strong but just very unlucky. We had good form all year, but missing so many points from Le Mans and Spa, it was always an uphill battle from there. But yeah, there’s always something to learn, and all in all, the performance on our car was very good.”

Quite a different feeling though to your championship win in 2015…

“Yeah. Actually that year it was really nice going home to New Zealand. I go home every summer for roughly one month, give or take a little bit, and to go home knowing what a fantastic season we’d had, to go see my family, knowing I had a contact for the following year – I knew I wouldn’t have to be on the phone late every night trying to arrange a drive for the next year in Europe – that was a nice feeling to switch off for one month, and with a championship in the pocket. 

“I think being champion changes a few things. Obviously the expectation is always growing in this project: from the first year [in 2013], everyone always expects big things from Porsche, but we also knew it was a young team, so the expectation gets higher and higher. Last year, with the #1 on the car, it was a big bulls-eye for everyone else.”

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An amazing journey, given that, a few years ago, you were without a drive. What do you think convinced Porsche to give you the seat for 2014?

“Well at the time, 2013, I was working very heavily in Formula 1 [with Red Bull Racing] and was busy at that time racing in the European Le Mans series. I even did Le Mans twice. And at the time I felt I was driving the best I ever had. I think…[pause]…I think the timing was right, basically. I mean, I sent Porsche an email – basically just to say ‘please have a look at what I am doing’ – not expecting to get a reply, and to my surprise they said, ‘yep, sure, let’s meet up’. At the time they were looking for someone young, someone with Le Mans experience, and I think it also helped that I had so much experience with the high-end technology of Formula 1. I think it was a surprise to many people that Porsche chose me, but yeah, I guess they liked me, and wanted to take a chance on someone different.”

How difficult was that first season with Porsche?

“I knew that stepping up, there would be added pressure representing Porsche, but I didn’t expect that to affect me as much as it did. Early in the project, I very much felt that weight on my shoulders, and felt I had to prove myself. So I was very cautious not to make a mistake – possibly a bit over-cautious, bit conservative – which actually, looking back, I think was the right thing to do but it took me a while to be truly comfortable in this environment.”

How much did you lean on the collective experience of your teammates Mark Webber and Timo Bernhard?

“Big time! The more we knew each other, the more we got on and worked as a team, and I like to think I also had a lot of things to bring to the table, but working with them, just how they prepare themselves mentally before hopping in the car, or how they manage working in this environment, when to speak up, when not to speak up, all those emotions and…not necessarily politics, but in the end, you’re dealing with a lot of people, so understanding how to work in such a big project, I had a lot to learn from them.”

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That your time with Red Bull had come to a close before that make this period more or less difficult for you?

“Well, when it first happened in 2010, I kind of saw it coming. I wasn’t doing a particular good job at the time [in Formula Renault 3.5], and actually not getting the F1 seat for 2009 took me a while to get over. It was a real kick in the guts. But when I stopped with Red Bull, it was almost like a fresh start for me. 

“Before that, my career was always controlled by Red Bull: y’know, “you’re doing this, you’re doing that”, etc. I didn’t need to think for myself, and just concentrated on driving. So this was the first time in my career that I had to sit down with my advisors and discuss a plan. At the same time, it was a bit of a dark time for me: I was driving well and performing, and just missed out on the opportunity I was dreaming of. But I recovered, I learnt from that experience, became stronger, kept fighting, and I’m quite proud of how I got to this point. To already be a World Champion and be here leading my first ever endurance race in a Porsche 911. It’s been a blast!”

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