Crunch time for Brendon Hartley


Formula Renault 3.5 title hopeful - Brendon Hartley © GEPA Pictures

It has been twenty-six years since New Zealand has fielded a driver in Formula 1. The last Kiwi to dabble with the pinnacle of motor racing was Mike Thackwell, a driver whose short-lived racing career in the big time comprised of nothing more than a few one-off drives across the early 80s and ended with him failing to qualify for Tyrrell at the German Grand Prix in 1984.

In the following years, New Zealand has continued to produce a handful of decent drivers who, at one time or another, have looked like potential F1 material. Closest perhaps was IndyCar racer Scott Dixon, who tested twice for Williams in 2004, but sadly went no further, despite posting times not far off Ralf Schumacher’s best at Paul Ricard.

With rookie driver Chris van der Drift trying to find his feet in the Superleague Formula this season and Earl Bamber having to make do with stints in the commentary box through lack of funds, Brendon Hartley still remains as the only Kiwi with the best shot at making a go of it in Formula 1, and this year could be make or break for the 21-year-old if he wants to realise his ambitions.

I have had a great interest in Hartley’s racing career ever since he participated in Formula Renault 2.0. It wasn’t just his surfer boy looks that made him stand out from the crowd, but his abundance of speed behind the wheel of car. On his day Hartley could be sensationally quick, yet equally, could be agonisingly frustrating to watch when everything fell apart – which became an all too common theme during last year.

In 2009 Hartley dovetailed his Formula 3 Euro Series campaign with a last minute drive in Formula Renault 3.5, and simply failed to deliver the goods in either race category.

Hindsight is indeed a wonderful thing, but the powers that be should have just left Hartley to fight it out in FR3.5 and made it his primary programme for the season. Instead we had a driver who appeared to have too much on his plate and wasn’t able to excel in either series he participated in.

On the road to victory at Brands Hatch in 2009 ©

On paper, Hartley massively underachieved in F3 Euro Series driving for Carlin Motorsport, finishing eleventh overall with only a single win to his name all season.

But statistics don’t paint the full picture, as Carlin didn’t have the experience of the more established teams, nor did they have a wealth of data in their possession. Factor in a swap from Mercedes-Benz powerplants to Volkswagen at the last minute and a set of Kumho tyres that left them out of sorts – Hartley had to drive a car well off the pace of the front runners for most of the year.

With Carlin on the back foot, Hartley and his engineer appeared to be trying to get the best they could out of the car in such a short amount of time. As a result, he would often overdrive the car during qualifying and the races, resulting in countless errors and so many penalties I actually lost track of the final number.

It was a similar, if less depressing, story in FR3.5 where Hartley drove a less than competitive car for French squad Tech-1 Racing. No wins to his name admittedly, but it became clear as the season went on that progress was being made and he was becoming quicker, with a decent chance of winning in the last few rounds, were it not for a combination of technical gremlins and that other hindrance of his: overdriving.

I have to admit that I was surprised to learn that Red Bull, with their constantly revolving-driver-door policy, had decided to keep Hartley on their books again this year. Dr Helmut Marko, head of the energy drinks junior driver programme, even indicated last year that Hartley had failed to impress him when he neglected to mention the Kiwi in his list of favourite drivers, and I can only presume he is on shaky ground as far as Red Bull are concerned.

It can’t be underestimated that this year is an important one in Hartley’s racing career. He needs to learn from his mistakes and smooth out his ragged edges driving once again for Tech-1 Racing in FR3.5 this season. He also needs recoup some of the limelight fellow Antipodean Daniel Ricciardo has been stealing in recent months, as the two Red Bull-backed drivers go head-to-head driving for the same team this year.

Ricciardo was in a runaway success in British F3 last year while under immense pressure (he had to win the championship to retain Red Bull’s support), and impressed Red Bull Racing during the F1 off-season when he topped the timesheets, while Hartley languished towards the bottom for sister-team Toro Rosso. Different test programmes perhaps, but you also had two drivers in two different mindsets. One brimming with confidence from winning a championship and one who suffered a terrible year and feared he would be abruptly given the boot.

So Hartley needs to come out all guns blazing from the word go this weekend at the FR3.5 season-opener at Motorland Aragon for he is in danger of being overtaken in the racing career ladder by his mate Ricciardo. He must be faster, show some maturity and mental strength to beat Ricciardo, otherwise it is going to be difficult to look at him in a positive light – particularly to those pulling the purse strings at Red Bull.

If history has shown anything, it is that Hartley has a habit of improving with a season’s experience under his belt. We saw this in his FR2.0 days and I continue to believe that he should have done with another year in British F3 to iron out some of his faults. But as we have seen before, Red Bull are keen to show the world the fruits of their driver programme as quickly as possible.

At least this year he has some testing under his belt before going head first into his FR3.5 campaign and the early signs are that he is definitely a title contender. So long as he can combine his impressive raw speed and somehow manages to curtail the many errors he is prone to, then I believe Hartley will be able to do the business this season, and up the racing career ladder he will go.

If he gets smoked by Ricciardo then I wouldn’t be surprised if Red Bull say adios to Hartley and spend their budget on grooming another rookie instead. The intra-team battle between the two in FR3.5 this year is a mouth-watering prospect indeed and I look forward to seeing how it pans out.

It’s important not only for Hartley’s self-esteem to get into Formula 1, but for his home nation as well, if more opportunities are to become available for fellow Kiwi drivers. Otherwise, with no real names on the horizon, New Zealand will remain as one of Formula 1′s forgotten nations.

So not too much pressure on him then.

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