In the ruthless world of Formula One there is perhaps no more professionally dangerous occupation than being a Red Bull-backed driver.
For all the driving riches wearing the Austrian energy drinks logo on your racing overalls can bring, your career and the very foundations on which it rests are only ever one phone call away from rapid demolition — just ask Daniil Kvyat, the most recent recipient of one of the team’s high-profile eviscerations.
You can imagine, then, what Brendon Hartley must’ve felt when he first heard rumours of his apparently imminent demise at the hands of Mercedes-backed Pascal Wehrlein so early in the season.
Hartley is no stranger to the machinations of the Red Bull Junior Team, having been tossed aside in 2010 after five years in the programme. More interesting, however, is his Lazarus-like return.
The Kiwi was made the first driver to be welcomed back into the Red Bull F1 fold thanks to a series of unusual circumstances late last year — Carlos Sainz being loaned to Renault, Pierre Gasly’s unavailability and the apparently unabating need to sack Daniil Kvyat — and though fortune certainly played a part, so too did hard work, with Hartley winning two World Endurance Championship titles and the 24 Hours of Le Mans in the intervening years.
But while the Kiwi has proven he has the sort of driving talent to warrant and F1 drive, converting that endurance racing success into single-seater form has been tricky.
“There’s an equal level of complication [between WEC and F1], but it’s different,” he said ahead of the season. “They’re equally as challenging, but definitely to get the most out of the cars, I would say the Formula One cars are definitely more difficult and more physically difficult as well.”
After six rounds in 2018 the transition looks as difficult as ever. Teammate Pierre Gasly has a 4-2 qualifying advantage this season, and though each has finished ahead of the other once apiece when both have made it to the end, Hartley’s single point from Azerbaijan pales in comparison to Gasly’s 18-point haul earnt through a sensational fourth in Bahrain and a strong seventh in Monaco.
But with less than a third of the season complete and with just 10 F1 starts under his belt, can we really already judge Hartley’s return to be a failure?
Toro Rosso shouldn’t be so fast to do so, and there are three good reasons why Hartley should be retained.
First, there are signs of hope that the Kiwi is coming to grips with the category — his form was strong at the Monaco Grand Prix, run on a circuit where the driver ability has more influence on performance.
The New Zealander talked confidently of qualifying in the top 10 after leading his teammate in all three practice sessions, but the yellow flags and traffic that can turn Saturday into a lottery for thee tight midfield struck at all the wrong times, leaving him to start 15th, from where progress is difficult in Monte Carlo.
Nonetheless he executed his race strategy well and was vying for points when Charles Leclerc crashed into him with a brake failure, eliminating both from the race.
Second, it’s important to put into context Toro Rosso’s fluctuating form over the course of the season, and Hartley himself told Autosport after the Monaco Grand Prix that expectations had become over-inflated after Gasly’s sensational fourth place in Bahrain, with the team unable to recapture that level of performance until Monte Carlo. Making the call to replace a driver using such a small sample size of races with an inconsistent car hardly seems a sound one.
But perhaps most important is that, third, Hartley, like most drivers, needs time to grow into his new role, a principle that seems often forgotten in Formula One.
Indeed Red Bull for a time had become a major transgressor against this philosophy, as noted here last year, with its junior driver programme seemingly looking for the next instant success in the style of Max Verstappen rather than taking the time to nurture a junior into a star over a longer period of time.
Surely there is no greater example of this than Brendon Hartley. While he has admitted that he wasn’t ready for the pressures of top-level motor racing when he was dropped in 2010, his subsequent self-motivated development to become a world championship-winning driver is hard evidence that some drivers simply need more time than others to reach their potential.
Red Bull tacitly agreed to as much when it welcomed him to Toro Rosso. It would be disappointing for it to lose faith in its own narrative so soon.