Interview: Brendon Hartley

We sit down with the factory 919 driver

Photo: Interview: Brendon Hartley 1
January 19, 2017

At the age of just 27, New Zealander Brendon Hartley is already a veteran at driving Porsche race cars in the top LMP1 class at Le Mans. The 2017 season marks his fourth year of driving the 919 Hybrid. To date, the 2015 racing season remains his best, as it was the year he, together with his teammates Timo Bernhard and Mark Webber, won the FIA World Endurance Championship (WEC) Drivers’ Title. At the age of only 25, he was the youngest driver ever to hold such a title. For Porsche, it was their first endurance championship since 1986.

Hartley’s success in endurance racing at such an early age came as a surprise to some. His early driving career—like that of so many youngsters—was geared towards racing in formula cars, with the ultimate goal being a drive in Formula One. Like many of Hartley’s contemporary colleagues, he started with go-karts at the age of six years old. A mere six years later, he began competing in his first full-scale race championship in Formula First New Zealand.

Progressing through his early years, the young Kiwi managed to gather a lot of experience: at just 13, Hartley won New Zealand’s Formula Ford Festival in 2003. His triumph gave him a starting chance in the Formula Ford Championship, where the young Palmerston North (Palmy to the locals) driver won two out of the four races he entered. Another benchmark was soon to follow.

On January 8, 2005, the teenager took part in the first race of the Toyota Racing Series, a class of single seater racing in New Zealand that was to arouse international interest. Hartley managed to be the fastest of the 17-strong field, outperforming his then tutor and veteran driver Ken Smith who came second. Such success would not go unnoticed.

In 2006, Hartley moved to Europe to compete in Formula Renault. One year later, he won the Eurocup Formula Renault 2.0 championship and was signed to serve as a test driver for Red Bull’s Scuderia Toro Rosso Formula One team. His path to F1 seemed to be falling into place in 2009 when he was promoted to the role of test and reserve driver for both Scuderia Toro Rosso and Red Bull Racing.

Hartley’s F1 hopes were dashed, however, when Toro Rosso chose Jaime Alguersuari instead of him to replace a fired Sébastien Bourdais. Hartley maintained a test and reserve role with Red Bull and Toro Rosso in 2010 and then with the Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 team from 2011-2013 while he also raced in Formula 3. During this time, though, it became clear that an F1 race seat would not become available to him.

Needing a new avenue to pursue, Hartley switched his focus to endurance racing. Having run some WEC races in the LMP2 class and some Grand-Am events in 2012 and 2013, he reached out to Porsche about possibly joining the then newly-established 919 Hybrid program for its maiden season in 2014. To his surprise, he got a seat.

In the last three years with Porsche, Hartley has won eight races and, as noted earlier, the 2015 Drivers’ Championship. One award still missing from his shelf, however, is an overall victory trophy from Le Mans (his best finish there was second overall in 2015). We had the opportunity to speak with Hartley several times in the last year and found him to be understated, witty, modest, direct and relaxed—qualities that we have seen in other generations of New Zealand motoring greats like Chris Amon and Bruce McLaren.

Excellence: What is your verdict on the 2016 racing season and your outlook on 2017?

Hartley: In the last season, Mark, Timo and I didn’t really get the result we wanted. Some of it was out of our control. In the first race in Silverstone, I had a crash while leading which obviously didn’t start the season well. Then, we had technical problems on the next two races (i.e., Spa and Le Mans) so that was very much out of the drivers’ control.

But the team has come a long way since then, the reliability from that time on was just incredible and we went on to win four of the last six races. We led every single race in the season apart from the last one—but if you don’t finish well in Le Mans, it can really destroy the whole season. The point system (double points for Le Mans) is not so favorable if you have a DNF (did not finish).

But we have started this season with big goals, it goes without saying. You have to if you want to get the #1 back on the car and more importantly to stand on the top step in Le Mans.

Excellence: A lot has been written about your career. But in your own words: Why did you become so immensely involved in racing? After all, you do not stem from a dynasty of well-known race drivers.

Hartley: Actually, my father was quite successful as a racing driver but never had the opportunities like I did. My earliest memories are watching him compete in the Formula Holden (similar to F3000 Europe), racing Minis, and dirt track racing in our hometown. He did a bit of everything. Actually, in the single seater Formula Holden, he raced against Mark Webber at the F1 Grand Prix weekend in Adelaide in 1996—which Mark won, so that’s okay (laughs).

Photo: Interview: Brendon Hartley 2

And when my brother Nelson and I started growing up, he gave up his racing in order to support the two of us. My first race at age six is still to date the only time myself and Nelson competed against each other. I still remember my first race and the adrenaline and desire to win that I experienced, from that moment racing was my biggest passion and more or less all I know. We always operated on a small budget and—in typical New Zealand style—did everything ourselves. As a schoolboy, I was at the workshop most days after school preparing the kart or car for the upcoming races.

Excellence: After moving up through the open-wheel racing ranks, you were very involved in Formula One as a Red Bull test driver from 2008-2010. What ultimately led you to Le Mans?

Hartley: To be honest, in 2009 I had a real chance to race in Formula One. That was a tough year for me. It was closer than people realized to me being in the (Torro Rosso F1) car replacing Sébastian Buemi instead of Jaime Alguersuari. I was the reserve driver at the time, but I did not do the best job.

Over the next year, I struggled. I had missed my chance in a way. And in the next year, I didn’t do a good job either. I was still the reserve driver in 2010. But then I stopped earlier in 2010. Actually, at that time I was teammates with Daniel Ricciardo, but I wasn’t really doing a good job for a number of reasons. I’d say 2009 and 2010 was a bit of a dark time in my career. But I learned a lot from those two years and believe coming out the other side of such a tough time has made me a much stronger driver.

I think from 2010 or maybe 2011 I really understood that maybe the dream of Formula One was looking more difficult, although I was still testing and still driving the cars. I’d say I was being realistic. So in 2012 and while working for the Mercedes F1 team, I looked up a different avenue I hadn’t really pursued: endurance racing. If I’m perfectly honest, I didn’t grow up watching Le Mans. But when I spoke to some friends, they advised me to go to a test.

Excellence: How did you go about it?

Hartley: I went to a test at Paul Ricard. I took my helmet and some cash with me because I wanted to do 20 laps in an LMP2 car. I met the whole pit lane, I gave my CV to everyone and, in the end, and I managed to do a race at Spa (in an Oreca 03-Nissan). We finished on the podium in a World Endurance event.

The win was with a new team, Murphy Prototypes, who I had just met. So after our third place in the LMP2 class, I then did Le Mans for the first time that year—and actually, I fell in love with the race. It was kind of unexpected to me. I knew what Le Mans was, but I didn’t know how amazing it is. I simply hadn’t fathomed just how big an event it is and how emotionally attached I’d become to this race.

I was signed to drive again for Murphy Prototypes in the 2013 European Le Mans Series season (he finished seventh in class and 12th overall in his second run at Le Mans that year) as well as racing Grand-Am in the U.S. with Starworks Motorsport.

Excellence: So now that your fervor for endurance racing—and Le Mans in particular—had been aroused, what was your next step?

Hartley: Well, after having driven Le Mans twice it was immediately the goal to be a factory driver.

Porsche at the same time had just announced that they were returning to Le Mans racing. In a way, I thought it was quite unrealistic that I would get a seat. I knew I had a lot of experience and I was showing the best performance in my life, but I think Porsche had a list longer than you can imagine with all the people applying for the job as LMP1 driver, plus there was obviously a long list of eligible drivers that were already on their books.

Confident as I felt at the time, I decided to send an e-mail to (Porsche’s LMP1 Team Principal) Andreas Seidl, hitherto unknown to me. In racing, you meet a lot of people on the way. By this point, I had been racing in Europe for seven years. This is how I knew Amiel Lindsay, a fellow Kiwi and the chief mechanic for the Porsche LMP1 project. He gave me Andreas’s e-mail address.

Photo: Interview: Brendon Hartley 3

The e-mail I consequently sent Andreas simply stated how interested I was, my CV, if I could introduce myself at a circuit somewhere, and I also asked if he could look into the job I had been doing in LMP2 and Grand-Am (Grand-Am Road Racing, later on merging with the American Le Mans Series) in America. I didn’t really expect a reply. When I got the response a few weeks later asking if I could fly to Weissach to meet, I couldn’t believe it. I knew that they would be meeting with many drivers, but now I at least knew they would be looking into my performances.

Excellence: The thing they liked about your e-mail apart from your vast experience was precisely the fact that you acted out of your own initiative—submitting your CV in the same way that a mechanic or an engineer would do. This was a rather humble approach for a race driver of your caliber—who didn’t even expect a reply.

Hartley: Well, to me, it felt like a dream, although I also believed I was the right man for the team and this project.

They put me on the list where they really analyze all the data. Actually, I know, because when I went into the factory I saw all these analyses of my lap times over the last two years. They really studied all the drivers. When they met with me, I guess they must have liked me. After that, I met the (now former) head of development (Wolfgang Hatz) on my second visit to Weissach. So it started to become a bit more of a reality, but I was still skeptical—I knew there were a lot of drivers they were looking at.

Excellence: As you now know, they liked your simulator experience.

Hartley: Yes, I think that was also a part of it. They liked the fact I’d been working on the development front of Formula One, which was—at the time—the pinnacle of technology. I think there are question marks now in that WEC has taken over in some areas. We are really pushing the limits of the technology. But at that time, me being involved with F1 for so many years and really on the development side, I think that also was a draw card for me. Added to which I was young. I think they were looking for someone young who at the same time had experience at Le Mans. I guess I fit the bill.

Excellence: When it comes to racing, who actually decides on the sequence in which you drive?

Hartley: This is something we discuss even before the season starts. Last year, for example, we discussed between the drivers which tracks we thought that we were potentially stronger at for starting, for qualifying, for the strategy. This is also talked about between the drivers and the engineers. Then obviously that also filters to the upper management. But it’s an open discussion, and ultimately the decisions we make are with the sole intent of getting the best out of the whole program. Generally, we share the loads very evenly.

The first year in the team Timo started the first three races including Le Mans, and that was simply because it was such a complex car in the beginning that we wanted to keep one driver having the same reference every time, so he knew exactly what to do when we came to Le Mans. And after Le Mans, we rotated.

In 2015 and 2016, we rotated the whole season, even for qualifying. We do have a rotation system, but it’s fluid. If at the race track, we say between us ‘it makes sense that we change this because one person is feeling more comfortable,’ then we might well change the sequence. Actually, we do our best to put our egos out the door and make the best for the result. It is not one person who makes every decision but the whole team.

Excellence: How do you feel about Mark Webber having left your team?

Hartley: I was very sad when Mark broke the news to me that he would leave at the end of 2016. I found out the same day as the rest of the team did. It was at the Japanese race in Fuji. To be honest, I think he tried to tell me many times before—a bit like a girlfriend dumping you, an issue you’re keen to avoid. I had a few feelings, as he tried to call me a couple of times to talk to me personally, but I had always steered the conversation another way.

Timo and I were extremely happy to have had this partnership over the last three years. And we’re sad it’s come to an end. He brought a lot to the team and we became very close. I think I have a friend for life.

Photo: Interview: Brendon Hartley 4

Like many dynamic teammates, we went through a lot of highs and a couple of lows, which is absolutely motorsport and sport in general. At 40, he’s not too slow. He left whilst he was still competing at a level beyond the ability of most and at the peak of his game. And, yes, it’s big shoes to fill replacing Marc; I think Timo and I will have to step it up, because of his broad view of motorsport and proven capabilities, he will be sadly missed.

In a lot of ways Marc was something of a teacher to me. I relished in the opportunity to able to soak up as much as I could from such an accomplished driver and thankfully he’s still hanging around. He’ll be at Le Mans, and we’re obviously going to stay in touch. This sport is an addiction and like many of our predecessors, he’s not going to stay away for long. He’s contributed immensely and is going to want to know what’s going on. He’s still very much a part of the team. Yes, very sad to lose him, but we respect his decision.

Excellence: Another Kiwi is now part of your team. How well do you know Earl Bamber? Does he have a lot of experience? And how is Timo coping with two Kiwis?

Hartley: Timo will definitely become an honorary Kiwi. That’s for sure (laughs). Anyway, Timo has had two antipodeans, an Aussie and a Kiwi, for the last three years. So now, it’s going to be two Kiwis. Timo started to understand the language from down under a long time ago, I’m sure he’ll acculturate fine.

As for Earl, I actually know him very well. We were intimate friends as kids; we raced together at the same go-kart track. Very early on, I taught Earl how to drive, having one or two years of racing under my belt. When I was seven or eight we were going to the same track, Earl’s father was taking us there.

I actually learned to drive my first road car on his dad’s farm when I was 11 (a common practice in New Zealand). It is quite amazing that 20 years later we ended up in one team competing at the highest level of World Endurance racing.

Excellence: That obviously conjures up analogies to Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg in F1 who used to be close friends but ended up fierce enemies when racing for Mercedes. But then again, F1 is totally ego-driven, whereas LMP1 is more of a team sport.

Hartley: Forget about it, this is completely different. Timo and I, we pushed to have him. We both know him and we think he’ll integrate very well. It is a team, but I am not going to lie to you; between the two cars, there is obviously some healthy competition. We really want to beat the other car this season. Having said that, you’ll find there’s a synergy in our friendly environment, not toxic. We share information and learn from each other, we have a good team spirit over the two cars. But, of course, there is some rivalry and that’s only normal when only one car can win.

Excellence: You obviously want to become car #1 again. How much of a help will Earl be?

Hartley: Earl is very fast. Plus he has a huge amount of experience from GT racing. There is no question he is top class and that is why Porsche has chosen him and that’s why Timo and I were pushing to get him in our car. He’s a good guy, a team player, and he’s a top class guy who is well proven, that’s for sure.

Excellence: There are only two LMP1 teams now, which doesn’t make life easier for you—no points being split between Audi and Toyota any longer to help you. And Toyota is bent on winning and have made major improvements on their cars. So how confident are you?

Hartley: We’ve also made good steps. Le Mans is never an easy race to win, regardless of how many competitors there are. It is 24 hours, a lot of variables. Yeah, Porsche has been working incredibly hard and we obviously have the other car that is competing against us as well. I expect it to be a close race like it was last year.

Excellence: What are your goals moving forward?

Hartley: On a personal level, I’d love to stand one step higher on the Le Mans podium. I’d be lying if I told you that wasn’t the case. But to be honest, we all celebrated that victory last year. For us, it had been a project for a long time. We went through the hard times and we all had a part of developing the 919 into the car it is today—I mean we’re all a part of that victory. But on a personal level, of course, it would be nice to stand on the top step.

Also from Issue 244

  • Testing the 420-hp 2017 911 Carrera S
  • 1951 pre-A 356
  • Market Update: 1965-1973 911
  • Hurley Haywood’s 1974 Road Atlanta crash
  • Remembering Tony Adamowicz
  • A Carrera 3.2-based 911 RSR “3.4”
  • Ferdinand Piëch Profile
  • Top of the Ladder: 911S for 1967
  • The 9A2-Series Engines
Connect with Excellence:   Facebook icon Twitter icon Instagram icon