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)

Jimmie Johnson won’t race full time in 2023; leaves open possibility of returning at Ganassi

Jimmie Johnson race 2023
Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images

Though he remains uncertain of his plans for next year, Jimmie Johnson won’t race full time in 2023, scaling back his schedule after running a full 17-race NTT IndyCar Series season.

“This was a difficult choice for me, but in my heart, I know it’s the right one,” Johnson said in a statement Monday morning. “I’m not exactly sure what the next chapter holds, but if an opportunity comes along that makes sense, I will consider it. I still have a bucket list of racing events I would like to take part in. Competing at this level in IndyCar has been such a great experience.

“I couldn’t have asked for a better team to race for than Chip Ganassi and Chip Ganassi Racing. Everyone worked extremely hard for the last two seasons, pushing to get the best performances out of me every single week. The support from my crew and teammates Dario (Franchitti), Scott (Dixon), Tony (Kanaan), Marcus (Ericsson) and Alex (Palou) went above and beyond anything I could have ever asked for.”

WHAT’S NEXT FOR JIMMIE JOHNSON: An analysis of his racing options for the 2023 season

Driving the No. 48 Dallara-Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing, Johnson ranked 21st in the 2022 points standings with a career-best fifth place July 24 at Iowa Speedway.

After running only road and street courses for Ganassi in 2021, the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion added ovals this year. In his Indy 500 debut, he qualified 12th and finished 28th after a late crash.

“I do have a desire to go back (to IndyCar), it’s just at this point, I know what’s required to do a full schedule, and I don’t have that in me,” Johnson told AP. “I don’t have that passion that I need for myself to commit myself to a full season.”

That leaves open the concept of Johnson returning part time with Ganassi, perhaps exclusively on ovals.

“We are fully supportive of Jimmie,” team owner Chip Ganassi said in a statement. “He has been a valued member of our team and if we can find a way to continue working together, we would like to do so.”

During IndyCar’s season finale race weekend, Johnson told reporters Sept. 9 that he planned to explore his options with wife Chandra and daughters Evie and Lydia. Johnson told the Associated Press that his family is considering living abroad for a year or two, and he has toyed with the idea of running in the World Endurance Championship sports car series because of its international locales.

Johnson hasn’t ruled out IndyCar, IMSA sports cars or even a cameo in NASCAR next year. Since retiring from full-time NASCAR after the 2020 season, he has entered the endurance races of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship in the No. 48 Ally Cadillac (including Saturday’s Petit Le Mans season finale). Johnson also wants to race in the 24 Hours of Le Mans and is a prime candidate for the Garage 56 entry (a joint project of NASCAR and Hendrick Motorsports).

Johnson told the AP he is interested in becoming the latest driver to try “The Double” and run both the Coca-Cola 600 and Indy 500 on the same day (the most recent was Kurt Busch in 2014).

“You know me and endurance sports, and ‘The Double’ sounds awesome,” Johnson, a four-time Coke 600 winner, told AP. “I’ve always had this respect for the guys who have done ‘The Double.’ I would say it is more of a respect thing than a bucket-list item, and I’d love to put some energy into that idea and see if I can pull it off.”

It is less likely that he would return to IMSA’s endurance events because its top prototype series is being overhauled, limiting the amount of inventory available for the new LMDh cars in the rebranded GTP division.

Johnson has confirmed that he would retain primary sponsor Carvana, which has backed him in IndyCar the past two years. He revealed his decision Monday during the last episode of “Reinventing the Wheel,” Carvana Racing’s eight-part docuseries about his 2023 season.

“I’m thankful for the partnership with a company like Carvana for allowing me to take this journey in IndyCar, for seeing the value in our partnership and being open to future opportunities together,” Johnson said. “They have truly showed me that there are no finish lines in life. Along with Carvana, The American Legion, Ally, cbdMD and Frank August were there every step of the way, and I couldn’t have done it without all of them. Most importantly — and the true rockstars in all of this –my family, Chani, Evie and Lydia. They have always allowed me to chase my dreams, and we are all just really excited about what the future holds for all of us. I have enjoyed every minute of these last two years.”

Said Carvana co-founder Ryan Keeton: “During the past two years, Jimmie Johnson has been so amazing to collaborate with. Our team admires his passion, hard work and commitment to continuous improvement while also having fun, and we look forward to continuing to support him next year in this new chapter.”