The fascinating return to Red Bull prominence for Hartley

Brendon Hartley is not necessarily a household name. Despite this, his upcoming cameo appearance in Formula 1 filling in for the ‘trophy hunting’ Pierre Gasly at Toro Rosso, could not be any more exciting.

Hartley has been a World Endurance Championship factory LMP1 driver at Porsche since 2014. Alongside team-mates Timo Bernhard and Earl Bamber, the New Zealander is likely to secure a second WEC title this season to couple with his 2015 crown. Despite his achievements in prototype racing, the news of his imminent F1 debut is a seismic shock.

2017 has been a year to expect the unexpected in world motorsport. Hartley’s imminent F1 bow is as surprising a storyline as Fernando Alonso’s Indy 500 escapade and injects another fascinating narrative into the 2018 F1 driver market.

Brendon Hartley

‘Hartley to make F1 bow with Toro Rosso’ is a headline that was more likely a product of 2010. At that time, the Kiwi was a key protagonist in Red Bull’s young driver programme.

However, it could be argued that Hartley found himself to be a victim of poor timing. During his stint as a promising Red Bull junior, he shared programme duties with Daniel Ricciardo, Jean-Eric Vergne, Daniil Kvyat and a young Carlos Sainz Jr.

Whilst his performances in Formula Renault 3.5 and GP2 were admittedly unspectacular, there is an argument to suggest that Hartley was effectively crowded out at a time when Red Bull had too much talent on their books.

Exhiled from the Red Bull fold at the end of 2011, Hartley found himself supplementing his junior formula endeavours with a Mercedes F1 test role in 2012 and ’13. This amounted to little and with F1 aspirations beginning to seem remote, Hartley found his way into the Porsche LMP1 programme.

Proving to be a strong all-rounder, Hartley blossomed to take WEC title honours in just his second season. Alongside Mark Webber and Timo Bernhard, the trio was an effective blend of youth and experience. Winning four races in succession – in a season composed of eight events – the team’s consistency mid-season proved decisive.

Hartley was a key player and claimed his first championship title since Renault Eurocup in 2007. It ended a barren spell and placed the 26-year-old Kiwi firmly among motorsport’s top tier talents.

This season, Hartley seems set to take another title. The #2 Porsche currently leads the series standings and is likely to secure championship honours. Despite a disappointing race to fourth place in tricky conditions at Fuji this weekend, the #2 squad still leads the #8 Toyota by 39 points in the standings with just two races to go.

Having already taken victory at the Le Mans 24 Hours and at this month’s Petit Le Mans – the blue-ribband round of the IMSA series held at Road Atlanta – a second WEC title would be the cherry on top of 2017’s glorious gateau for Hartley.

Unlike earlier in his career, timing has been spectacular. As Hartley has bolstered his already impressive CV this season, F1 has seen a near unprecedented mid-season driver shuffle. With Carlos Sainz heading to Renault for the remaining four races of the campaign and Pierre Gasly heading to Japan to finish what he started in Super Formula, Toro Rosso has found themselves needing two drivers for the US Grand Prix.

Daniil Kvyat was the obvious choice for the first seat, given that he was initially moved aside for Gasly, but the vacancy of the second seat was a point of contention. Sebastien Buemi and Antonio Felix da Costa were suggested – both overlooked in favour of Hartley.

It is the latest in a string of fascinating narratives that have served to make 2017 a fascinating year in world motorsport. Much like Alonso’s Indy 500 debut, motorsport fans have been granted another opportunity to see a driver cross disciplines.

The last time a leading light in LMP1 entered the F1 fold was when Andre Lotterer replaced Caterham’s Kamui Kobayashi for the Belgium Grand Prix in 2014. Here, the circumstances were different – Caterham was a team enduring a challenging season that eventually ended in liquidation.

Compare this to Hartley’s opportunity at a team engulphed in a fierce midfield battle, where he will be pitched alongside the recently demoted Kvyat in what could be a duel for a full-time 2018 Toro Rosso seat. If Hartley can match Kvyat across the course of his first weekend in F1, then he surely becomes a prime candidate to partner Gasly next season.

Whatever the long-term permutations turn out to be, the story is already a compelling one. A driver ejected from the Red Bull programme finds himself propelled back into contention by an entirely unorthodox route. Improbable but clearly not impossible, Hartley’s very own tweet sums up his journey;

 

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