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From obscurity to coveted star: Brendon Hartley’s surreal 2017

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Some five years ago, Brendon Hartley’s open-wheel career appeared in tatters – the Kiwi had been dropped by Red Bull’s Junior Team and then was also placed on the scrap heap by Mercedes AMG Petronas.

Red Bull had come off its period of domination of Formula 1 from 2010 to 2013; Mercedes then was on the verge of its own once the series switched engine formulas from 2014.

And in neither case, Hartley would move up to play a greater role in those team’s glory years.

But the unheralded driver known more for his flowing blonde locks and his rapid speed regardless of his less than glittering junior open-wheel formula career in Europe had three races that would set a new course for his career and propel him into being potentially the hottest prospect going at the moment in a surreal road back to Formula 1. He’ll make a shock debut in F1 at Circuit of The Americas, a track integral to his success, with Scuderia Toro Rosso.

He’d debuted at the 2012 24 Hours of Le Mans in an LMP2 class Oreca 03 with Greg Murphy’s Murphy Prototypes operation, then had a return engagement in his first major U.S. race at Petit Le Mans in the same car later that year.

AUSTIN, TX – MARCH 02: The #8 Ford Riley of Brendon Hartley and Scott Mayer leads another car at the Grand-Am of the Americas at Circuit of The Americas on March 2, 2013 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Brian Cleary/Getty Images)

It was at Circuit of The Americas in March 2013, however, where Hartley’s U.S. career was properly born.

A simple GRAND-AM Rolex Series race, one that lacked the flair, the fans or the gravitas of the first F1 race at Austin held the previous fall a few months earlier, revealed a potential star in the making.

Hartley was leading, driving for Starworks Motorsport and co-driving with Scott Mayer, before a right rear suspension failure sent him off course with less than 15 minutes to play. It was a brutal end to what would have been an upset victory, cast against the series’ stalwarts fielded by Chip Ganassi, Wayne Taylor, Michael Shank, GAINSCO/Bob Stallings and Action Express, among others. Baron and Murphy are both renowned in the sports car world for their scouting of talented drivers, and finding Hartley stands as one of their proudest moments.

Eventually Hartley and Mayer did get that win – at Mayer’s home track of Road America – and Hartley’s performances caught the eye of Porsche, who selected him to its LMP1 program.

ELKHART LAKE, WI – AUGUST 10: Brendon Hartley of New Zealand is lifted up by Scott Mayer to celebrate in victory lane after winning the Sports Car 250 at Road America on August 10, 2013 in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. (Photo by Brian Cleary/Getty Images)

Cast against F1 veteran Mark Webber, Porsche factory stars such as Timo Bernhard, Romain Dumas and Marc Lieb and young prototype veteran and a similar Red Bull prodigy who never got an F1 shot in Neel Jani, Hartley was always going to be the one with the most to prove in such a high-profile position. But he has built his stature up over this period.

In his time at Porsche, Hartley has quickly redefined himself as a sports car star and has been blessed now with having the best season of his career in the time when his, and Porsche’s futures, are changing.

Paired with fellow Kiwi Earl Bamber and Bernhard, the No. 2 Porsche 919 Hybrid emerged as Porsche’s lead entry this season following a fight-back win at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and gave Hartley the overall victory there that eluded him the three years previous. With that result pushing the No. 2 car ahead of the No. 1 car (Jani, Andre Lotterer and Nick Tandy), the No. 2 has now been slotted into further wins this year the rest of the FIA World Endurance Championship season.

Hartley’s overall win at Le Mans was highlight of his year. Photo: Getty Images

However, the on-track performance has not been the talking point for Porsche’s LMP1 program this year; its future has been. With Porsche announcing it would withdraw its LMP1 program at the end of the year, so too the futures of the six drivers placed there now become a question mark. Tandy and Bamber figure to get placed within Porsche’s GT program, Jani and Lotterer have signed to Formula E contracts, and Bernhard has his own GT team to run.

Which leaves Hartley, the second youngest of the group at 27, the hottest commodity and the subject of intense speculation over his future.

Rumors have swirled the second half of the year that Hartley is bound for the Verizon IndyCar Series next season with Chip Ganassi Racing, as second driver to countryman Scott Dixon. Ganassi will scale back to two cars from the four it’s ran since 2011 (save for 2013, when they ran three).

Suddenly though Hartley follows Lotterer in having had the opportunity of a lifetime presented to him completely out of left field, as one of F1’s most surprising debutantes in recent years. Lotterer made his debut at the 2014 Belgian Grand Prix with Caterham, but didn’t get to complete more than a lap in the race with an electrical issue. He had, however, outqualified teammate Marcus Ericsson at the rear of the grid, and later said at that year’s FIA WEC race in Austin that F1 racing “wasn’t what it used to be.”

Drivers have gone the other way, of course – Nico Hulkenberg’s cameo at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2015 netted a famous overall win co-driving with Tandy and Bamber in the third Porsche – but few get the timing, opportunity or circumstance to come into F1, especially after such a long open-wheel layoff.

Hartley’s most recent known open-wheel action came with Mercedes in 2012, having tested at Magny-Cours. Prior to that he was a regular in testing with both Red Bull and Toro Rosso. The hang-up my colleague Luke Smith and I figured that could hold him back from a potential F1 debut was ensuring he’d had the 300 km of private testing in modern machinery in recent times to back up the other qualification, which was having enough Super License points (which he has from his FIA WEC success).

He’ll enter into a very weird situation, whereby Toro Rosso will have both Hartley in his F1 race debut and Daniil Kvyat in his return after being benched for two races for Pierre Gasly. The team sits sixth in the Constructor’s Championship, nearly all points scored by Carlos Sainz Jr., who leaves the team to make his Renault debut next week.

Circuit experience won’t be a problem. As noted, that COTA race in March 2013 was the first of several COTA starts for Hartley in sports car, and in succession he’s gone fifth, first, first and first with Porsche in FIA WEC rounds at the track. Clearly, he knows the way around the place.

His experience in understanding a sophisticated hybrid system is evident by way of that Porsche, yet he’ll still have to realistically learn the car. So a proper benchmark for him will probably be Paul di Resta at Hungary, even though he’ll have more time than the Scot did to prove himself just in the qualifying session before that race. Di Resta’s aptitude from that weekend has played himself back into contention for a Williams race seat in 2018.

And so that’s the next question – how will Hartley fare in a weekend where there’s such little expectation but potentially everything to gain? Beating Kvyat is a standard goal, and if Hartley were to advance into Q2 in his debut, it’d be a massive achievement. The team will have at least one seat free to fill in 2018 provided Gasly has a full season and we pretty much know what Kvyat’s ceiling is in F1, whereas with Hartley, we don’t.

The ripple effect comes elsewhere in that if Hartley impresses enough to merit a further look by Toro Rosso beyond COTA. Gasly will return for Mexico after his Super Formula finale but whether Kvyat need be retained beyond a “driver of necessity” type role as he will be at COTA is a question mark. And of course, if Hartley does get a further F1 look in advance of 2018, it could throw his all-but-destined IndyCar bow into question as well.

Hartley, Dalziel and Sharp. Photo courtesy of IMSA

“I’m not 100 percent sure what will happen next year, but I’m still working it out. I love working here in the U.S.,” Hartley told NBC Sports at Motul Petit Le Mans last week when asked about his future. Of course, he’d just come off of winning that race in the No. 2 Tequila Patron ESM Nissan Onroak DPi he shared with Ryan Dalziel and Scott Sharp, in an IMSA series that is growing in stature.

SAKIR, BAHRAIN – MARCH 12: Sebastien Buemi (L) of Switzerland and Scuderia Toro Rosso is seen talking with reserve driver Brendon Hartley (R) of New Zealand during practice for the Bahrain Formula One Grand Prix at the Bahrain International Circuit on March 12, 2010 in Sakir, Bahrain. (Photo by Peter Fox/Getty Images)

So the bright spotlight will shine on a driver picked by Red Bull over Sebastien Buemi, who was also available and a very strong candidate himself given his own F1 experience with Toro Rosso, and championships achieved in both FIA WEC with Toyota and FIA Formula E with Renault e.dams.

Hartley has nothing to lose, everything to gain courtesy of this abnormal but deserved appointment that has far-reaching implications beyond just next week’s United States Grand Prix.

JEREZ DE LA FRONTERA, SPAIN – DECEMBER 01: Brendon Hartley of New Zealand and team Toro Rosso in action at the Circuito De Jerez on December 1, 2009 in Jerez de la Frontera, Spain. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Timekeepers: What winning a watch at Daytona means to a driver

Courtesy of IMSA
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Some gift them to family and friends. Some keep them for their children. Some put them in safekeeping.

Others wear them as a daily reminder of perhaps their greatest accomplishment in auto racing.

It’s the steel and yellow gold Rolex Oyster Perpetual Cosmograph Daytona (with a white dial) that has become synonymous with victory in the 24-hour race that opens the IMSA season.

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“Daytona is about one thing and one thing only: It’s just the watch,” said Bryan Sellers, the 2018 GTD Series champion who still is seeking his first Rolex 24 at Daytona victory after 13 starts. “You grow up in sports car racing knowing that is the one trophy you have to win before you walk away. You want to wear that watch to Daytona the next year, so that everyone knows you won it, or you want to wear it to the year-end banquet so people know you have won one.

Tony Kanaan, Kyle Larson, Jamie McMurray and Scott Dixon with their watches after their 2015 Rolex 24 win (Jerry Markland/Getty Images).

“That is a race that when you win it, your name is forever etched in history. There is something special about it. Everybody wants the watch. That’s all that matters.”

Since 1992, every driver on a class-winning team in the Rolex 24 at Daytona (and the race’s grand marshal) has received the watch, whose retail price starts at more than $10,000. Last year, there were 16 watches awarded to the winners at Daytona International Speedway.

Every winner has a story of what the watch means, and every driver still trying to win their first has a story of what they’d do with it.

Here’s a sampling of what the watch means to those racing in the 58th running of the Rolex 24 at Daytona:

A.J. Allmendinger (2012 Daytona Prototype overall winner): “Yeah, I always bring it with me to the Rolex as a good luck charm to show me like, ‘Hey, we’ve gotten one before, we can still go do this again.’ For the most part, I don’t wear it, I keep it in a drawer that I know where it is at all times. If I’m feeling a little down on myself about my driving at times, I may have put it back on just to show like ‘Hey, you can get it one when it’s time,’ but I don’t wear it a lot, I wear it on special occasions and always bring it out just to show that you know it’s inspiration. I’d like another one for my other arm. Technically, I have to get another one for my dad because I promised him the first one and once I won it I was like, ‘No, sorry Dad, this one’s mine,’ but it’s there. It’ll always be in a drawer for sure.”

Townsend Bell (2014 GTD): “We lost the race in 2014 on a penalty, and the penalty was reversed two hours after the race. So we won the race and I won a watch. And then four years later, my watch was stolen when my house was burglarized. So just for one watch and one win, I’ve had a roller coaster ride of emotions just to this point, and I really look at it like I’m level set back to nothing, and I’ve got to go earn and win one again and having lost one through theft it makes me just as hungry as ever to go make it happen. … When I first won the watch, I brought it home to California, and I remember showing it to my oldest son Jackson at the time, and it’s one of the few things I’ve done in racing where he’s looked at something or held something, and I can tell he was proud and thought it was pretty cool. As a dad, that’s a great feeling.”

Andy Lally (2001Rolex SRPII, 2009-2011-2012 Rolex GT, 2016 GTD): “I actually have eight because I got three championships and back then they used to give you one for the championship. The first one is here and the other seven are gifted to people that have helped me out through the years. I gave my mom, my dad, my stepdad, my little sister, Mike Johnson, who was the car owner and the guy that put me in my first Daytona that helped me win the first one. My old soccer coach and the first guy to sponsor me in a car. He pulled me out of go karts and put me in my first race car. Those people have my other seven watches. I want to win more to give back. I love that moment because I give it to people who appreciate what this race is about and appreciate the Rolex brand and appreciate what that means, what that signifies, what that Rolex Daytona is and it’s special to me and I know it’s special to them.”

Joao Barbosa (2010 Daytona Prototype overall, 2014 Prototype overall, 2018 Prototype overall): “I’m planning to donate a couple of them when my kids grow up and probably when they have their own kids so it goes by generations. I have two kids so someday they will have their own kids, and it might be a good gift to give them when they get to that point.”

Renger van der Zande (2019 DPI overall): “I have a son, he’s 1 year and 2 months. So, if he behaves for 18 years and he’s responsible, he might get a Rolex from me. So I’ll keep it safe for then.”

Jeff Gordon, Ricky Taylor, Max Angelelli, and Jordan Taylor, show off their Rolex watches in victory lane after winning the 24 Hours at Daytona in 2017 (Brian Cleary/Getty Images).

Ricky Taylor (2017 Prototype overall): “So when I won the Rolex in 2017, I never took it out of the box. I would leave it in the box and I would eat breakfast with it every day, I’d look at it, and it didn’t seem real. So I’d look at it and it would be there, we’d eat breakfast together, and then I’d put it away. That went on for about two, three weeks, and then my dad told me that we had a sponsor dinner, and everyone was wearing their watches, so I had to wear it. So, besides that one time that I wore it to the sponsor dinner, it’s never come out of the box. It hides in my office, and I want it just to stay exactly how it was the day that we won.”

Oliver Gavin (2016 GTLM): “My Rolex is now at home in a safe. I’ve gotten it out of the box once and showed my family. It was kind of like, ‘OK, I’m going to put this away for safekeeping. It’s now still there, in the safe. I’ve got relics from the Sebring 12 Hours in 2013. I want one more, then I’ve got one for all my children. That’s my goal.”

Ryan Briscoe (2015 GTLM, 2018 GTLM): “The first one was absolutely mine and I don’t wear a watch much, I’ve got a beautiful watch box at home. My dad gave me this rotating watch box so it keeps it going and so forth. My second one, I wanted to give to my wife. I had it sized for her. It’s a gold one with a white face and really looks good. So on special occasions, we will put our Daytonas on and go out.”

Sebastien Bourdais, Christian Fittipaldi and Joao Barbosa celebrate with their watches after the 2014 Rolex 24 (courtesy of IMSA).

Patrick Pilet (2014 GTLM): “My wife she told me if I win a second one, she wants to get it so now I have a lot of pressure. I’m always proud to wear the watch and to show what is on the back of the watch with the Rolex winner is something really unique.”

Nick Tandy (2014 GTLM): “The watch is a trophy you can’t buy. You have to win it. It’s obviously symbolic of the race. A bit like the trophies at Le Mans. You can only get these particular trophies at Le Mans. So, if in years to come in time you can look back and show your grandchildren this particular trophy that happens to be a Rolex, and you can say you had to win this, no one can go out there and buy these sort of things- it’s something you have to work for.”

Kamui Kobayashi (2019 DPI overall): “I would not mind having a second one (laughs). This is why you always want to win these big races. The challenge of this big race, everyone wants this big watch. The watch is a special present. Everyone says it looks cool, but when you turn it around and it says Daytona winner, that is something even more special. To look at that, it is just crazy.”

Colin Braun (2014 Prototype challenge winner): “I have two of them. They’re both in my safe at home. I won them, and I just felt like, ‘Man, these are so special to me.’ I want to be able to take them out, look at them and put them back in my safe. I feel like if I wore them, I’d worry about scratching them, losing them. They’re just so special. When I won a second one, I would wear that watch because it would kind of be an everyday watch. I sort of fell back on that and said, ‘Man, this is special, too. I’m putting this in the safe.’ I don’t want anything to happen to it so if we can win a third here I’ll say that I’ll wear it, and hopefully, I really do.”

Simon Pagenaud (2019 Indianapolis 500 winner; winless in five Rolex 24 starts): “Racing is also about the trophies and the jewelry that you get. I think it’s ends up being what you’ve done in your career and when you look at your rings and your watches and your trophies that you’ve won throughout the years, you remember racing moments, passing, actions at the race track, drama and you’ve got all these memories going through your mind. To me, it’s everything. It’s what my life is — its racing–  so obviously if I could get the watch that would be a very special gift.”

Alexander Rossi (2016 Indianapolis 500 winner; winless in two Rolex 24 starts): “I have (an Indy 500 ring), a watch would be great. I don’t know if there’s a race that gives out a necklace if you win but if there is, that would probably be the next on my list.”

Helio Castroneves (three-time Indianapolis 500 winner; winless in four Rolex 24 starts): “I think the jewelry combination would be perfect. Ring (from the Indy 500) and watch together. It would just complete one of the goals that I want. You’re talking about Daytona 24 Hours, and the Rolex would be an incredible asset to have right here (points at wrist).”

Courtesy of IMSA