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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)

F1 Preview – 2018 French Grand Prix

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It’s hard to believe that the French Grand Prix, the oldest grand prix event on the planet, as it dates back to June of 1906, was ever removed from the Formula 1 calendar.

Alas, not since 2008 at Magny-Cours has Formula 1 held a race on French soil. Yet, that all changes this weekend, as Formula 1 visits the Circuit Paul Ricard for its first French race in a decade.

Formula 1 teams are not strangers to Paul Ricard. It has been a popular testing facility for years, as evidenced by the below photo from 2016, featuring Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari in a wet tire test.

LE CASTELLET, FRANCE – JANUARY 26: Sebastian Vettel of Germany and Scuderia Ferrari drives during wet weather tire testing at Circuit Paul Ricard on January 26, 2016 in Le Castellet, France. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

However, in terms of racing, Paul Ricard has also been absent from the calendar for quite a long time – the last time Formula 1 race at Paul Ricard was in 1990. Alain Prost won for Ferrari that day.

1990: Alain Prost of France punches the air in celebration after passing the chequered flag in his Scuderia Ferrari to win the French Grand Prix at the Paul Ricard circuit in Le Beausset, France. Mandatory Credit: Pascal Rondeau/Allsport

As such, despite being a known quantity as a testing facility, how a race weekend will shake out is anybody’s guess.

And what’s more, it marks the beginning of three consecutive race weekends – The French Grand Prix, The Austrian Grand Prix, and The British Grand Prix – which F1 teams and drivers are calling “the triple header.”

Talking points ahead of the French Grand Prix are below.

A Journey Into the Unknown?

Like all new venues, or resurrected and refurbished ones in this case, the Circuit Paul Ricard represents somewhat of an unknown, as there’s no available race data to make predictions off of.

And the 3.61-mile, 15-turn track itself represents a range of challenges. It has fast corners, like Turns 1 and 2 (S de la Verrerie), a technical section between Turns 3 and 7 (Virage de l’Hotel through the Mistral Straight Start), and a 1.1-mile straightaway in the Mistral Straight, though it is separated by a chicane (Turns 8 and 9).

Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff discussed the challenge of the circuit, highlighting the lack of data to build off of as well the tough three-race stretch ahead as especially challenging, in a preview on Formula 1’s website.

“France should be an interesting race. We don’t often get to race on a track where we have little to no historical data. It makes preparing for the weekend a bit trickier than usual, but that element of the unknown also adds to the challenge. The French Grand Prix marks the first race of the triple header, which will test all F1 teams to their limits, but also offers the chance to score a lot of points over the course of three weeks – which is precisely what we’re setting out to do,” said Wolff.

That element of the unknown makes Paul Ricard one of the biggest wildcards on the 2018 F1 calendar, and a championship shake up could be in the cards as a result.

Ferrari, Mercedes Continue Their Back and Forth

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA – MARCH 25: Sebastian Vettel of Germany driving the (5) Scuderia Ferrari SF71H leads Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes WO9 on track during the Australian Formula One Grand Prix at Albert Park on March 25, 2018 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Ferrari and Mercedes have traded jabs throughout the 2018 season, with neither able to pull away from the other so far through seven races.

Sebastian Vettel enters the French Grand Prix with a one-point lead over Lewis Hamilton, and holds a slight edge in victories – three to Hamilton’s two – and comes off a thorough domination of the Canadian Grand Prix.

Vettel led every lap at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve on his way to victory, while Valtteri Bottas had to carry the Mercedes flag in finishing second. Hamilton languished in fifth, a surprising and disappointing result given his previous success there.

The aforementioned Toto Wolff described it as a “wake up call,” though Mercedes will roll out a power unit upgrade this weekend – Ferrari and Renault, which also powers Red Bull Racing, rolled out upgrades of their own in Canada.

With four long straightaways present at Paul Ricard, power will certainly be at a premium, so such upgrades will be vital in giving Mercedes a chance to make amends after Canada’s disappointment.

Trio of French Drivers Look to Impress on Home Soil

It comes hardly as a surprise that the three French drivers – Romain Grosjean, Pierre Gasly, and Esteban Ocon – are keen to make an impression at their home race.

And all three could certainly use a boost. Gasly has only one finish inside the points (seventh in the Monaco Grand Prix) since his stellar fourth place effort in the Bahrain Grand Prix. Ocon is coming off back-to-back points finishes (sixth in Monaco, ninth in Canada), but he has only one other finish inside the points this year (tenth, in Bahrain). And Grosjean, despite showing the speed to finish in the points, is yet to score any in 2018.

As such, all three are hoping for big things in their home race this weekend.

“I want to get a good weekend, have some luck, get my first points of the season, and get a lot of support from the fans,” said Grosjean. “I think we should be in a nice place at Paul Ricard. I’m always looking forward to jumping back in the car. I just love driving an F1 car.”

Ocon, who has raced and won at Paul Ricard in the past, expects his prior experience could be a big help.

“I did race at Paul Ricard early in my career – it was actually where I had my first victory in single seaters in 2013 so I have some fantastic memories of the place,” Ocon described. “I hope we can add some more success this weekend. Having been there in the junior categories makes getting used to a new track in a Formula One car much easier. I think I will find my rhythm quite quickly.”

Gasly’s excitement level obviously matches that of his French compatriots, with the added bonus that the return coincides with his rookie F1 effort.

“For me it will be absolutely incredible that my first full season of Formula 1 coincides with the return of a French Grand Prix to the calendar for the first time in 10 years,” said Gasly. “That has to be a reason for me to be very happy and I’m really excited to be racing in my home country. I can tell it will be a special feeling going out on track and actually, I have spoken to Jean Alesi and Alain Prost about it and they both told me that it will feel really special and something that you really have to experience as a Frenchman racing in France.”

Qualifying for The French Grand Prix begins at 9:55 a.m. ET on Saturday, with Sunday’s race at 9:30 a.m. ET.