New Zealand’s Brendon Hartley is expected to become Chip Ganassi Racing’s newest IndyCar driver.
The 27-year-old Kiwi would replace the outgoing Tony Kanaan in the No. 10 Honda to form an all-Kiwi lineup with four-time champion Scott Dixon. Current CGR drivers Max Chilton and Charlie Kimball are unlikely to be retained as the team ponders returning next season in a downsized, two-car program. Kanaan, as RACER’s Robin Miller reported, will join A.J. Foyt Racing on a two-year deal.
Hartley, a favorite of Honda Performance Development, was shopped to multiple IndyCar teams as proven talent to consider for 2018. It’s believed he came close to signing on with another team, possibly as James Hinchcliffe’s teammate at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, before Ganassi is said to have intervened.
“First, if [another owner] wanted to sign him up that bad, he could have signed him,” Ganassi told RACER. “And secondly, Hartley’s one guy we’re talking to, among others.”
Before his switch to sports cars with Porsche as a factory driver in 2014, Hartley was on track for a career in Formula 1. Seven years of European open-wheel training across Formula Renault 2.0, Formula 3, Formula Renault 3.5 and GP2 was combined with five years of F1 test driving for Toro Rosso, Red Bull and Mercedes, however a race seat never materialized.
Once the road to F1 closed, Hartley was snapped up by Porsche and paired with grand prix veteran Mark Webber and sports car champion Timo Bernhard in the 1000-plus horsepower 919 Hybrid Le Mans prototype. Regarded as the bullet within the team, Hartley was also relied upon for extensive development work.
With the 2015 FIA World Endurance Championship LMP1 title to his credit, an overall win at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in June (below, with teammates Earl Bamber and Timo Bernhard), and the current lead in the WEC’s LMP1 standings, Ganassi would receive a bright prospect with immense experience in sleek, high-power cars. IndyCar’s upcoming move to a new universal bodywork package that uses less downforce should also be perfectly suited to Hartley’s skillset.
Learning ovals, which comprise approximately 30 percent of the IndyCar calendar, would serve as Hartley’s only shortcoming as a rookie in the No. 10 Honda. From a split 2013 season where he tested in F1 for Mercedes and raced Daytona Prototypes in the Grand-Am Rolex Series, Hartley brings circuit knowledge of Barber, Belle Isle, the Indy GP road course, Mid-Ohio, Road America and Watkins Glen to the team.
Along with Bernhard and new teammate (and fellow Kiwi) Earl Bamber, Hartley has three consecutive WEC wins, including the most recent round in Mexico, entering this weekend’s race at Circuit of The Americas. After COTA, October’s trip to Fuji and November’s visits to Shanghai and Bahrain will complete his time with Porsche, which is exiting LMP1 at the end of the season.
Hartley would become the latest in a long line of sports car champions to try and conquer Indy car racing.
Among the notable names, Penske Racing’s Mark Donohue dominated the SCCA Trans Am series before moving up and eventually winning the 1972 Indy 500; 1982 IMSA GTP champion John Paul Jr. went on to score a popular win at the 1983 Michigan 500 in a career that stretched into the early days of the IRL. Five-time IMSA GT/GTP champion Al Holbert contested the 1984 season in CART where he finished fourth on his Indy 500 debut; 1983 IMSA GTP champion Randy Lanier spent 1985 and half of 1986 in CART before his arrest for drug trafficking.
Two-time IMSA GTO champion and three-time Trans Am champion Scott Pruett used his sports car prize money to buy a CART ride in 1988 and turned it into a career that ran through 1999 and included two wins – one at the Michigan 500, and another at Surfers Paradise. Juan Manuel Fangio II took his 1992 and 1993 IMSA GTP championships to CART from 1995-1997, but was unable to recreate the sports car magic he found with All American Racers.
Within the current crop of drivers, 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series champion Simon Pagenaud took his 2010 ALMS LMP championship in a Honda-powered prototype and turned it into select IndyCar outings in 2011 that ultimately led to earning the title last year with Team Penske.
And in an interesting twist, another sports car champion to make a full-time turn to Indy car racing was Scott Sharp, whose 1991 and 1993 Trans Am titles were added to scoring the inaugural IRL championship (along with Buzz Calkins) in 1996. Sharp, whose Tequila Patron ESM team competes in IMSA’s Prototype category, currently employs Hartley to drive at the four endurance races on the WeatherTech Championship calendar.