Brendon Hartley is on a road to somewhere. The uncertainty of his destination is part of the fun.
He knows he’s got crossroads approaching and decisions to make. He also realises there will be unexpected turns – some tough and others exciting.
But the 22-year-old racing driver from Palmerston North reckons he’s equipped to handle whatever is put in front of him now.
For a while it looked like Hartley had his future all mapped out. A precocious teenaged talent in New Zealand, he transferred those skills to Europe at just 15. A podium finish in his debut season of Formula Renault 2 in 2006 and winning the Eurocup the following year more than proved the potential that Red Bull Racing had invested in.
The next year he was test driving Formula One cars and in 2009 he was official reserve driver for both the Red Bull Racing and Scuderia Toro Rosso F1 teams.
But his form in other areas fell away and in the ruthless world of motorsport Red Bull’s patience ran out. He was dropped and he was stunned.
“At the time of my career when I needed to deliver – I was very close to being in a F1 car – I was in a bit of a slump in a lot of ways and for a lot of different reasons,” Hartley said.
“I guess that’s quite normal in a lot of sports for that to happen. So yeah, obviously I had some tough times.” But Hartley still had belief. He manoeuvred into working with the Mercedes F1 team as well as expanding his racing CV into the endurance scene.
He’s loving the variety while still holding on to his F1 dream. That came a step closer last week when Mercedes took him out of his regular simulator work and into the driver’s seat, completing 87 laps at the Magny Cours track in France under the watchful eye of his bosses, including legend Michael Schumacher.
“That may have come as a bit of a shock to some people . . . obviously I’ve been off the radar a bit,” Hartley says down the phone from his English base in Milton Keyes.
“But I’ve been working hard behind the scenes; it’s just that it wasn’t really public knowledge.
“It was nice to show people that I still have a lot to offer as I try to fulfil my dreams.
“The nice part for me was that despite all that work behind the scenes, I wasn’t sure if I was going to get another shot . . . those chances don’t come around very often.
“And it went really, really well. It couldn’t have gone much better. I felt much more prepared than when I was 18 years old. That was very young. I’ve learnt a lot since then and I’ve obviously grown up since then.
“I felt as ready as I’ve ever been and I did a really good job – it’s good to be able to say that. I have a really good relationship with Mercedes . . . my foot is still in the door, you never know what will come of it.”
After all that he’s already been through in such a short time, Hartley knows when to throttle back his enthusiasm and face reality. He’s crashed hard once and doesn’t want a repeat.
“I went through that and had an unfortunate time. There is a lot of politics and money involved which makes things complicated for a kid from Palmerston North. I’m proud of where I’ve come from and what I’ve achieved so far. I’ve tested for three different F1 teams now and I have to pinch myself to make sure I don’t forget that.
“So it’s nice to be back in the work that I’m in now. I like to think that I’m still quite young and I have a long professional career ahead of me.”
While Hartley is busy helping provide Mercedes with the numbers needed to be competitive in F1, he’s also branched out.
He’s done some GP2 racing but his decision this year to move into sports car endurance racing with Irish team Murphy Prototypes is giving him new stimulus.
He contested the famous Le Mans 24 hours race, completing 196 laps before mechanical problems forced him out, and he’s proven competitive in other World Endurance Championship races.
This weekend he’s “having a bit of fun” classic car racing a Ford GT40 – Kiwis Bruce McLaren and Chris Amon won the 1966 Le Mans race in one.
Next month he crosses the Atlantic to race in the United States for the first time, contesting the Petit Le Mans, held annually at Road Atlanta in Braselton, Georgia.
“Being able to continue my racing alongside my work with Mercedes has been working out well.
“At the beginning of the year I didn’t really know what I was going to be racing. I sat down and thought, OK what are my options? I looked at endurance. It wasn’t something I knew a lot about, but I’m glad I took the time to look at it because I’ve really enjoyed it.
“It’s a bit different to racing single seaters, but it’s still racing and it’s still a very quick car. I’ve kind of made a venture into endurance while I’m still involved in F1.”
Importantly, Hartley is making contacts and still turning some heads that matter. He’s hopeful that he’s setting up “a long professional career”.
He’ll stay in Europe because “in terms of an opportunity for a driver, especially F1, it’s definitely the place to be”.
As for next year, Hartley says he just has to sit tight and see what’s around the next corner on this tricky track he’s chosen to travel.
“I honestly I don’t know. I’m just trying to keep my options open. I’ve had a really good year this year, the endurance thing has been going well and F1 came out of the blue.
“I’m fairly confident that I’m going to be racing something, I just don’t know what that will be right now.
“It’s not always in my control. I’ll keep doing my best and hopefully that relationship with Mercedes works.
“I can’t say I’m going to be a Formula One driver; it would be very silly for me to say that. But I’m going to keep doing my best to make that happen.”