Following in the footsteps of the greats that came before him – Bruce McLaren, Chris Amon and, more recently, Scott Dixon – Porsche’s Brendon Hartley is the latest Kiwi driver to fly the flag for New Zealand motorsport. Speaking from the paddock at the 6 Hours of Mexico, Radio Le Mans’ John Hindhaugh sat down with Hartley to discuss childhood, rivalry and the legacy that precedes him.
New Zealand is inhabited by around 4.7 million souls. That’s about the same as Barcelona or Hamburg – London is almost half as populous again, at over 7 million.
In sporting terms, the Kiwis punch way above their population weight. Those of us that follow ball sports know of the success of the mighty All-Blacks in Rugby, the country’s national sport. Cricket is a close second. And in Olympic competition, New Zealand regularly features at the top of the ‘medals per capita’ table.
Recent figures suggest that over 54% of adolescents in New Zealand represent their school at sport.
Yet, it is in a sport not represented on the school curriculum that their historic success is enjoying something of a renaissance on the international scene. Motorsport is big news in New Zealand. And New Zealand motorsport is headline news worldwide, as Porsche’s Brendon Hartley told me recently in the paddock at the Mexico WEC event.
“Everyone has a story about a Kiwi in motorsport. If it’s an engineer, a mechanic, the drivers… everyone in the motorsport paddock has some kind of memory about a Kiwi doing well.”
Such success is hardly surprising given the sport started very early in the Islands. The first motor race, between a quad cycle and a motorbike, was held in late 1901. And the first car race with multiple events was at the Metropolitan Trotting Grounds – now Addington Raceway – in 1905.
The list of international competitors from New Zealand started with Motorcycle TT rider Alan Woodman in 1910, and includes champions and household names in every branch of the sport on two and four wheels, not least including Chris Amon and Bruce McLaren, as well as land speed record breaker Burt Munro, immortalised in the movie ‘The World’s Fastest Indian’. If you haven’t seen it, go and find it when you’ve finished reading this.
The doggedness and ‘never say die’ attitude of Munro – brilliantly portrayed in the movie by Sir Anthony Hopkins – is a characteristic that Hartley recognises.
“We’re a small island nation on the other side of the world, and I think as a country we consider ourselves petrol heads. I grew up at a racetrack, following in my father and brothers’ footsteps. It’s all I really knew from a young age.”
Hartley Senior built his own racing cars and engines. And when, at 6 years old, a young Brendon started competing – albeit on a shoe string budget – it seemed natural for his racing to become a family affair. Karting, that essential grassroots entry into motorsport for so many of the greats, has a high level of competition in New Zealand, as Hartley recalls.
“There were 15-20 Kart tracks, which is probably surprising for such a small country. When I moved to single seaters, in Formula V [a VW-engined race car similar to Formula Ford] I had my first test at 11, which I probably shouldn’t say as I was probably too young. I started racing [cars] at 12. It was very competitive, with 30 cars on the grid. I was the youngest, but not the only one to have followed that trend. [IndyCar Champion] Scott Dixon was one of the first to fully exploit the regulations that allowed us to race at a young age.”
Formula Ford was the obvious next move for the young Hartley. And, unlike, some of his countrymen who chose to move to Australia to compete, he stayed on home soil.
“Formula Ford in New Zealand at that time was very competitive. FF has a big history in New Zealand. As a driver, I learned a lot. It was me, my father & my brother.”
“The truth is, I wouldn’t have had the budget [to race in Australia]… I was very lucky. My family put all they could in. A lot of that was time.”
The 13 year-old Hartley would come home from school and change an engine – built by his father, of course – an engineering knowledge borne out of necessity that many Kiwis before had also experienced. Still the youngest driver in the field, he was learning race craft in close quarters, racing and earning respect from other competitors, most of whom had far more experience.
“I had one year of Formula Ford, and I had sponsors,” – At this point, Hartley makes the very important point that there are great supporters of New Zealand Motorsport. Even though his father was preparing and rebuilding the Ford engines, the simple truth is without these racing ‘Angels’, there would have been little hope of his career progressing.
Then, a new series based solely in New Zealand brought a new opportunity. The inaugural year of the Toyota Racing Series arrived at a crucial time, as Hartley explains.
“I got sponsorship to do the Toyota Racing Series. Again it was very, very competitive. We had a lot of New Zealand drivers that came from the years I did the series to get to the top level.”
In those early years, the majority of drivers were from New Zealand, but it’s a measure of how highly the series is regarded that there are now many more international drivers taking advantage of the European ‘winter break’ to head south and hone their skills.
And though Hartley is quick to admit that NZ tracks might not always be up to FiA WEC standard, the experience of driving on lesser-refined circuits has allowed both he and his compatriots to develop the skill to compete anywhere.
”You learn a lot driving on bumpy tracks; no run off, some real character. There’s 7 or 8 tracks on the calendar for 4 and a half million people!”
Yet, whilst that might be surprising to those outside the country, the Kiwis take it in their stride. As they do the sheer variety of layout and character that exists among those circuits. Packing a huge amount of racing into a very short timescale, the Toyota Racing Series is still the perfect platform for the career development of a young driver.
At the ripe old age of 15, it’s about now that the Kiwi grit and determination comes back into play. Hartley was faced with the decision that so many of his forbears – in all sports, but especially motorsport – had wrestled with through the years. Do I stay or do I leave?
“I found a contact for Dr. Marko [of Red Bull] and wrote to ask him for some sponsorship. They sent back a huge contract, and an opportunity to do a driver search [event] at Estoril.”
And so, at just 15, Brendan left school, without completing the academic year. Leaving his home and the support network with whom he had grown accustomed, he packed his bags and headed half way around the world.
“Like many other Kiwis [in the sport], I think we have to sacrifice more than others.”
Perhaps this is the reason the sporting flame burns so bright in those who have to take their talents to the world.
“You are pretty committed at that point. A lot of people said, ‘You didn’t give up’ – and I didn’t. I really had to pick myself up when things didn’t go well. I had a few, let’s say, dark years. But I think when you have committed yourself to a life abroad, away from friends and family, actually, I didn’t have a choice. I think in a way it gives you some motivation.”
So what about the international reputation of New Zealand Motorsport? Does that put pressure on those who begin to ply their trade on the international scene?
“I wouldn’t say pressure. I’m very proud to be a Kiwi, I think all of us Kiwis abroad are sometimes annoyingly patriotic. Growing up… New Zealand was the world to me. I didn’t always look outside… At 15, I was in Germany… When I started racing abroad, I realised what a rich history we have in motorsport… I’m proud to be one of many.”
Hartley is clearly, and rightly, very proud of his homeland and the achievements of Kiwis in international motorsport and, indeed, in sport in general. However, there is a question that just has to be asked, and it concerns the intense sporting rivalry between his nation and their near neighbours, Australia.
“Coming so far away from home… When you come across an Aussie, you feel more connected than when you are competing on home soil. When I grew up racing, I never competed in Australia… but there’s always a bit of friendly rivalry.”
How friendly, I wonder, given that one of his teammates in the #1 Porsche is Mark Webber?
“Between me and Mark, there’s a bit of banter, but it’s definitely friendly.”
We’ll all have to take his word for that.
As I reflect on our conversation, I’m not sure I’m any closer to finding out why New Zealand continues to produce sporting greats at international level in far greater numbers than nations many times its size. Listening back to the 15 minutes of audio recorded, sitting on a golf cart at the back of the Porsche LMP1 pit in sunny Mexico, I’m struck by how much Hartley talked about the high level of competition in national motorsport, and the financial support committed by national sponsors in New Zealand. Perhaps such circumstances have provided a determination to succeed internationally, not just on a personal level, but as a Kiwi. “One of many”, as Hartley put it.
And with that, I leave you to ponder Brendon Hartley’s brother, who’s just broken the land speed record for a sub 1000cc engine car – a 1964 Mini. With an engine built by their father. Going almost 170 mph.
Bert Munro would certainly be proud, of all of them. Now, go and watch that movie!