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He’s one of our finest motorsport exports. A winner at the 24 Hours of Le Mans (Le Mans), a winner in the FIA World Endurance Championship and a winner in many of the other major world endurance challenges.
He’s had a spell in Formula One and came through the ranks of New Zealand motor racing on the way. Today he’s also one of the busiest drivers in the world, and a works driver with TOYOTA GAZOO Racing. But he’s still very much a Kiwi, and has worked hard in the lockdown to engage with the local racing community to help some of the small businesses hit hardest in the lockdown period.
We caught up with Brendon Hartley and shared some good oil on the past two months.
First off, for those who don’t know your background, tell us a little bit about how you got started in motorsport
My earliest memories were watching my old man race on the road and on the dirt. Even before I had my first race in a go kart aged just five, I was hooked! I loved the competition and the combination of man and machine that was required to succeed.
You’ll be coming up to 20 years in circuit racing in 2022; that’s an impressive and incredible journey by any standard. What are the career highlights that you’re most fond of and most proud of?
I have many fond memories and many that have been character-building ones. It’s definitely some of the harder times that have taught me the most. Highlights would be signing for Porsche at the end of 2013. It was a huge turnaround for me personally after losing my drive with Red Bull to completely rebuild a new path in endurance racing.
I very much enjoyed this process, appreciated the support network I had around me (my now wife being number one on that list) and learned so much during the whole period. The other obvious highlights were the the two wins in the FIA World Endurance Championship (WEC), winning Le Mans and finally achieving my childhood dream of being a Formula One driver.
Tell us a little about life in Europe and in the WEC
I’ve been living in Europe for half my life now, but New Zealand will always feel like my real home. For the past few years life has consisted of travel on a weekly basis between all the roles I’ve taken on. The travel can be tiresome, but being in the WEC paddock with my Toyota buddies (my teammates and crew) makes it all worth it. We have lots of laughs but equally work very hard to get the most out of the Toyota TS050. Every time I jump in the car I still feel privileged to be one of the very few who get to drive an incredible and amazing machine.
Is there a good social circle of drivers in Monaco where you live? It always used to be the case – do you all hang out together and do ‘normal’ stuff like the rest of us?
Absolutely, there’s a huge racing community in Monaco. Our circle of friends is mainly made up of racing drivers, motorbike riders, pro-cyclists and other athletes. There’s a big community of us who cycle on our days off. Sarah and I have made some great lifelong friends in this sport, and those friends are scattered all across the world. It’s another of the perks of being in such an international sport.
Are Kiwi drivers held in high regard?
Yes. No question. I feel we also get an extra level of respect because of where we have come from. Teams and others see that there is an extra level of commitment to leave friends, family and home to travel to the other side of the world to follow your dreams.
Esports has shown you’re all basically mates and love to race each other, so what do you think we have to do to get one or two of them down here to have a go competing in real life at something? Like a race to inject some much-needed energy into interest in our local racing scene?
In some ways Esports has brought drivers even closer during the lockdown period. A couple of friends and I put together a four-week online series called ‘Racing Local’ to raise money for small Kiwi businesses. It’s been awesome to see the whole motorsport community come together and compete in one place. Imagine if we could get drivers from all disciplines together in real life! How cool would that be?
Since Formula One you’ve been incredibly busy and it says a lot about the high regard manufacturers have for you as a driver... what have been the highlights?
Out of everything, returning to endurance racing was the top priority. I’m extremely happy to be in the Toyota TS050 and fingers are crossed Le Mans will go ahead at some point in 2020.
You often talk about your love of endurance racing. What is it that has you hooked on that racing code?
Everything. The added team element, the respect required between the different classes, the bonds you form with your team and teammates and of course Le Mans . Nothing has given me the same emotion as standing on the grid for the Le Mans 24. Well, maybe my wedding day, but in the racing world that gives me the biggest goosebumps for sure.
What are the differences in working with a team of engineers from endurance, from Formula One and from testing and development roles?
There’s actually a very similar structure and level of extreme professionalism. The only difference fundamentally is the style of racing.
What are you enjoying about life as a TOYOTA GAZOO Racing driver – is there a good team vibe? You look like you and your teammates get on well
Absolutely. There are great vibes with the team and also with my teammates. I think we all understand that driving the TS050 is a privilege, it’s a thrill and it’s a constant challenge to get the most out of it.
One car one track – and the car is one you have never driven but would like to. Your choice?
I’ve been doing some dirt oval racing online in the past weeks. That would be cool. I’d love to race a sprint car at Knoxville. Something completely different.
Back to current reality. What’s it like spending more time in New Zealand than you expected? Where would you have been had you not been here?
I would have been busy racing and developing if I had not been here. Like all sports, we are currently on standby. I’ve been keeping fit and healthy to be ready when we get the green light and I’m good to go.
Does any technical work that you do carry on in these circumstances? Engineer discussions? Virtual work, that kind of thing?
A little. There have been a few technical debriefs but we can’t currently travel for simulator work. The gaming sim is not the same as doing sim work for Toyota. The gaming sim is more for fun of course and doesn’t have the sophistication or parameters of a factory simulator.
You’re well known for your fitness levels and mountain biking. What have you been doing to keep fit under lockdown?
A little bit of everything. Trail running and mountain biking keep me sharpest and happiest.
Who’s been in your bubble?
Sarah, my wife.
What have you learned to do that’s new during the lockdown?
Well, I’ve picked up the guitar again, which has been fun.
Esports has been the thing for most of the drivers, and it’s been great to see so many mixing up their formulae and sharing their time with other groups, yourself included. Which series have you enjoyed and how much are they actually like the real thing?
They’re still games and I miss the feel and adrenaline of the real thing. It’s actually harder than the real thing for me; I don’t have the feel, so would require days without sleep to find the last tenths . I’ve been enjoying speedway, which is something I always follow when back in New Zealand. It’s been fun to learn a new skill and connect with a new New Zealand motorsport community
Do the same set-up rules apply in real life as they do in the virtual world?
Yes, but the repair bills are a lot cheaper!
How did the Racing Local initiative come about?
It developed over a couple of weeks with friends before we hit the green light and tried to action it. It’s been way more work than we ever imagined, but it feels really worthwhile to see so many of the motorsport community together and more importantly raise money for small local businesses that so many of us have relied on during our careers. We all have a new-found respect for event management too. I will be proud to look back and say we actually achieved something during the lockdown and helped some people in need. On top of all of that, it’s been fun and we’ve learned a lot.
What are you most looking forward to after all ‘this’? Food? Freedom? A ride on the Mountain Bike? Shopping?
Connecting with friends at a local café and not via Zoom!