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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 VisitFlorida.com 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)

NHRA playoffs kick off with Beckman, Crampton, Line, Savoie wins

Photos and videos courtesy of NHRA
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(NHRA media release)

MOHNTON, Pa. – It’s been over a year since Jack Beckman parked his Infinite Hero Foundation Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat Funny Car in an NHRA winner’s circle but on Sunday at the 35th annual Mopar Express Lane NHRA Nationals presented by Pennzoil he came out on top.

Not only did Beckman defeat John Force in the final round at Maple Grove Raceway, he also took over the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series points lead.

“Our Sunday, I think it was perfect,” Beckman said. “That car was consistent, and it was fast. It’s one thing to be consistent and be a 10th (of a second) off the field but to run numbers as good as any other car out here, up and down the race track all four runs on race day.”

Richie Crampton (Top Fuel), Jason Line (Pro Stock) and Jerry Savoie (Pro Stock Motorcycle) were victors in their respective divisions at the first race of the 2019 Countdown to the Championship playoffs.

Beckman has been the runner-up four times in 2019 but it was his 3.958-second pass at 330.07 that gave him the holeshot win over Force’s quicker 3.952. One of the runner-up finishes was just two weeks ago at the U.S. Nationals against Force.

“In NHRA, you have zero control over what the car and driver in the other lane are doing,” Beckman said. “Did I want to beat him? Of course. Did it sting that he beat us in the Indy final? Duh. But none of that was going to help me be any better. Some fans came over before the final and said, ‘Hey, we’ll go razz John.’ And I said, ‘Don’t poke the bear.’ That guy, always seems to find a way to get motivated and win more races.”

It was a battle of Kalitta Motorsports in the Top Fuel final round but it was Crampton who raised the Wally trophy when he defeated his teammate Doug Kalitta with his 3.738 pass at 329.10 in his DHL dragster. Crampton now ties team owner and NHRA legend Connie Kalitta with 10 career wins.

Doug Kalitta snagged the Top Fuel points lead when previous leader and reigning champion Steve Torrence made an early exit in round one.

“It was definitely a great day for the whole team,” Crampton said. “All four cars are running good, particularly the dragsters, of course. But for Doug to take the points lead heading out of here, and we made a good jump in the points as well, that’s what we need to do. It’s that time of the year. It’s time to execute on race day and Connie and (crew chief) Kurt Elliott gave me the car to do it.”

Line earned his 50th Pro Stock title when he defeated Fernando Cuadra in the final round of eliminations thanks to his 6.553 pass at 210.60 in his Summit Racing Equipment Chevrolet Camaro. Line also took over the points lead from his KB teammate Bo Butner. Cuadra, who was completing in his first career final round, is also a KB powered car.

“It was a big victory, for sure,” Line said. “Not one of my shiner moments, but big victory, nonetheless. I was a little tardy (leaving the starting line) so not what you want to do in the final round. But 50 wins just means I’ve had some great race cars to drive and some great people I’ve gotten to work with over the years. It’s been a fun ride.”

Savoie picked up his second consecutive win on his White Alligator Racing Suzuki. He took down Steve Johnson with his 6.774 lap at 198.55 in the final round and went on to claim the Pro Stock Motorcycle points lead.

“It was just a great, great day for everyone. My whole team. I don’t take any of this credit. (Crew chief) Tim (Kulungian) and everybody on the team worked their butts off and here we are. At my age, I can do it. I didn’t count on making the top 10 because I took three races off. And, bam! Here we are. No one, not even myself expected this.”

The Mello Yello Drag Racing Series continues Sept. 27-29 with the second race of the Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship playoffs, the AAA Insurance NHRA Midwest Nationals at World Wide Technology Raceway in St. Louis.

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FINAL FINISHING ORDER:

TOP FUEL: 1. Richie Crampton; 2. Doug Kalitta; 3. Austin Prock; 4. Brittany Force; 5. Clay Millican; 6. Mike Salinas; 7. Leah Pritchett; 8. Antron Brown; 9. Steve Torrence; 10. Jordan Vandergriff; 11. Dan Mercier; 12. Terry McMillen; 13. Todd Paton; 14. Billy Torrence; 15. Lex Joon; 16. Smax Smith.

FUNNY CAR: 1. Jack Beckman; 2. John Force; 3. Ron Capps; 4. J.R. Todd; 5. John Smith; 6. Tim Wilkerson; 7. Matt Hagan; 8. Robert Hight; 9. Shawn Langdon; 10. Tommy Johnson Jr.; 11. Jim Campbell; 12. Cruz Pedregon; 13. Jonnie Lindberg; 14. Mike McIntire; 15. Bob Tasca III; 16. Terry Haddock.

PRO STOCK: 1. Jason Line; 2. Fernando Cuadra; 3. Matt Hartford; 4. Jeg Coughlin; 5. Deric Kramer; 6. Bo Butner; 7. Erica Enders; 8. Alex Laughlin; 9. Aaron Stanfield; 10. Kenny Delco; 11. Chris McGaha; 12. Bob Benza; 13. Greg Anderson; 14. Wally Stroupe; 15. David Miller; 16. Val Smeland.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: 1. Jerry Savoie; 2. Steve Johnson; 3. Matt Smith; 4. Karen Stoffer; 5. Angelle Sampey; 6. Eddie Krawiec; 7. Andrew Hines; 8. Hector Arana Jr; 9. Angie Smith; 10. Ryan Oehler; 11. Kelly Clontz; 12. Jianna Salinas; 13. Michael Ray; 14. Scotty Pollacheck; 15. Hector Arana; 16. Ron Tornow.

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FINAL RESULTS:

TOP FUEL: Richie Crampton, 3.738 seconds, 329.10 mph def. Doug Kalitta, 3.779 seconds, 331.28 mph.

FUNNY CAR: Jack Beckman, Dodge Charger, 3.958, 330.07 def. John Force, Chevy Camaro, 3.952, 328.78.

PRO STOCK: Jason Line, Chevy Camaro, 6.553, 210.60 def. Fernando Cuadra, Camaro, 6.594, 208.78.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: Jerry Savoie, Suzuki, 6.774, 198.55 def. Steve Johnson, Suzuki, 6.805, 196.59.

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FINAL ROUND-BY-ROUND RESULTS:

TOP FUEL: ROUND ONE — Austin Prock, 3.698, 331.61 def. Jordan Vandergriff, 3.757, 322.34; Mike Salinas, 3.818, 252.80 def. Billy Torrence, 4.727, 163.53; Brittany Force, 3.691, 326.79 def. Todd Paton, 4.265, 207.98; Leah Pritchett, 3.731, 326.40 def. Lex Joon, 4.858, 152.73; Doug Kalitta, 3.722, 330.96 def. Smax Smith, 8.356, 74.14; Richie Crampton, 3.733, 329.26 def. Dan Mercier, 3.892, 310.63; Antron Brown, 3.743, 328.30 def. Terry McMillen, 4.130, 237.59; Clay Millican, 3.752, 329.67 def. Steve Torrence, 3.741, 330.15; QUARTERFINALS — Crampton, 3.781, 324.44 def. Brown, 9.080, 81.48; Kalitta, 3.740, 329.83 def. Salinas, 4.354, 196.39; Prock, 4.735, 219.51 def. Pritchett, 5.736, 105.48; Force, 3.784, 306.67 def. Millican, 3.927, 266.42; SEMIFINALS — Crampton, 4.656, 164.57 def. Force, Broke; Kalitta, 3.740, 333.91 def. Prock, 4.015, 295.66; FINAL — Crampton, 3.738, 329.10 def. Kalitta, 3.779, 331.28.

FUNNY CAR: ROUND ONE — John Smith, Dodge Charger, 4.280, 245.05 def. Bob Tasca III, Ford Mustang, 6.422, 144.74; Tim Wilkerson, Mustang, 3.926, 320.36 def. Terry Haddock, Mustang, 10.025, 83.22; Ron Capps, Charger, 3.909, 327.51 def. Mike McIntire, Toyota, 5.898, 119.98; Jack Beckman, Charger, 3.908, 331.45 def. Jim Campbell, Charger, 4.204, 249.21; John Force, Chevy Camaro, 3.938, 326.40 def. Cruz Pedregon, Charger, 4.752, 172.94; Robert Hight, Camaro, 3.919, 331.04 def. Jonnie Lindberg, Mustang, 5.774, 127.88; J.R. Todd, Toyota Camry, 3.915, 329.58 def. Tommy Johnson Jr., Charger, 3.977, 327.66; Matt Hagan, Charger, 3.899, 332.02 def. Shawn Langdon, Camry, 3.961, 329.91; QUARTERFINALS — Force, 3.944, 331.61 def. Wilkerson, 7.140, 133.20; Beckman, 3.927, 331.61 def. Hight, 9.203, 83.25; Capps, 3.916, 329.18 def. Hagan, 8.623, 79.91; Todd, 3.949, 324.75 def. J. Smith, 4.013, 313.80; SEMIFINALS — Beckman, 3.916, 331.12 def. Todd, 5.501, 167.26; Force, 3.929, 329.42 def. Capps, 4.262, 240.25; FINAL — Beckman, 3.958, 330.07 def. Force, 3.952, 328.78.

PRO STOCK: ROUND ONE — Fernando Cuadra, Chevy Camaro, 6.588, 209.75 def. Kenny Delco, Camaro, Foul – Red Light; Matt Hartford, Camaro, 6.578, 209.75 def. Greg Anderson, Camaro, 6.622, 211.06; Bo Butner, Camaro, 6.549, 210.21 def. Aaron Stanfield, Camaro, 6.557, 210.54; Jeg Coughlin, Camaro, 6.552, 210.08 def. Bob Benza, Camaro, 6.593, 208.10; Deric Kramer, Camaro, 6.564, 209.92 def. Chris McGaha, Camaro, 6.587, 209.30; Jason Line, Camaro, 6.540, 210.44 def. Wally Stroupe, Camaro, 17.922, 45.55; Erica Enders, Camaro, 6.554, 209.36 def. David Miller, Dodge Dart, 19.609, 36.81; Alex Laughlin, Camaro, 6.568, 210.44 def. Val Smeland, Camaro, Foul – Red Light; QUARTERFINALS — Hartford, 6.591, 209.75 def. Laughlin, 7.169, 205.82; Cuadra, 6.578, 209.56 def. Enders, 6.581, 209.07; Coughlin, 6.568, 209.65 def. Kramer, 6.571, 209.92; Line, 6.549, 210.41 def. Butner, 6.575, 210.41; SEMIFINALS — Cuadra, 6.598, 208.46 def. Coughlin, Foul – Red Light; Line, 6.572, 210.57 def. Hartford, 6.604, 210.73; FINAL — Line, 6.553, 210.60 def. Cuadra, 6.594, 208.78.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: ROUND ONE — Matt Smith, 6.843, 198.15 def. Scotty Pollacheck, 7.109, 192.91; Jerry Savoie, Suzuki, 6.807, 195.11 def. Hector Arana, Foul – Red Light; Eddie Krawiec, Harley-Davidson, 6.891, 196.36 def. Angie Smith, 6.902, 196.19; Steve Johnson, Suzuki, 6.837, 194.72 def. Kelly Clontz, Suzuki, 6.971, 193.18; Hector Arana Jr, 6.897, 197.19 def. Ryan Oehler, 6.946, 194.46; Karen Stoffer, Suzuki, 6.822, 197.31 def. Ron Tornow, Buell, Broke – No Show; Angelle Sampey, Harley-Davidson, 6.865, 195.03 def. Jianna Salinas, Suzuki, 6.976, 191.40; Andrew Hines, Harley-Davidson, 6.871, 197.31 def. Michael Ray, 7.009, 189.71; QUARTERFINALS — M. Smith, 6.862, 199.58 def. Sampey, 6.857, 196.07; Johnson, 6.854, 195.42 def. Arana Jr, 6.967, 192.08; Stoffer, 6.847, 196.96 def. Krawiec, 6.878, 196.70; Savoie, 6.818, 197.10 def. Hines, 6.904, 196.44; SEMIFINALS — Johnson, 6.834, 195.70 def. M. Smith, 6.847, 198.64; Savoie, 6.818, 196.42 def. Stoffer, Foul – Red Light; FINAL — Savoie, 6.774, 198.55 def. Johnson, 6.805, 196.59.

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UPDATED POINT STANDINGS:

TOP FUEL: 1. Doug Kalitta, 2,180; 2. Brittany Force, 2,147; 3. Steve Torrence, 2,133; 4. Antron Brown, 2,127; 5. Richie Crampton, 2,126; 6. Mike Salinas, 2,104; 7. Austin Prock, 2,094; 8. Leah Pritchett, 2,093; 9. Clay Millican, 2,092; 10. Billy Torrence, 2,032.

FUNNY CAR: 1. Jack Beckman, 2,179; 2. John Force, 2,160; 3. Robert Hight, 2,155; 4. Ron Capps, 2,136; 5. Tommy Johnson Jr., 2,105; 6. Matt Hagan, 2,092; 7. J.R. Todd, 2,089; 8. Bob Tasca III, 2,072; 9. Tim Wilkerson, 2,057; 10. Shawn Langdon, 2,043.

PRO STOCK: 1. Jason Line, 2,194; 2. Bo Butner, 2,155; 3. Alex Laughlin, 2,139; 4. Erica Enders, 2,116; 5. Matt Hartford, 2,103; 6. Jeg Coughlin, 2,099; 7. Deric Kramer, 2,095; 8. Greg Anderson, 2,092; 9. Chris McGaha, 2,041; 10. Val Smeland, 2,031.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: 1. Jerry Savoie, 2,166; 2. Andrew Hines, 2,160; 3. Matt Smith, 2,143; 4. Eddie Krawiec, 2,134; 5. Karen Stoffer, 2,120; 6. Hector Arana Jr, 2,117; 7. Angelle Sampey, 2,083; 8. Angie Smith, 2,062; 9. Ryan Oehler, 2,042; 10. Hector Arana, 2,032.