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Brendon Hartley's inspiring journey from F1 reject to Toro Rosso's newest driver

Though last weekend's U.S. Grand Prix marked Brendon Hartley's debut in the sport,
it actually felt more like a comeback.

A decade ago, Hartley was building towards a career in Formula 1. Backed by Red Bull and with impressive results in the junior categories, his name started to get around.

It wasn't just his speed that caught people's attention. At a time when Michael Schumacher was still the archetype for what a grand prix driver should look like - all army regulation haircut and super-serious features - Hartley stood out from the crowd.

With his mane of blond hair and decked out in Red Bull gear, he bore more resemblance to a surfer than a potential grand prix driver. His easy New Zealand drawl completed the look.

But he was no marketing gimmick. Hartley showed a prodigious talent behind the wheel that set him apart from his rivals. He got his first taste of an F1 car in early 2008, still aged just 18, and at the end of that year filled in for the injured Mark Webber at a test with Red Bull Racing. The big time beckoned.

Then it all began to unravel. Hartley’s results dropped off and in 2010 he was blown out of the water by his teammate and fellow Red Bull prospect, a young Australian named Daniel Ricciardo.

Hailing from the same part of the globe and born within four months of each other, the pair remain friends to this day. Their careers had been running in sync, but at the conclusion of 2010 they diverged. Ricciardo was soon an F1 driver, while Hartley was dropped by Red Bull and departed single-seaters altogether after the 2011 season.

STAYING THE COURSE

When his form vanished, questions were asked about Hartley's commitment and mental strength. There's no denying that 2010 was brutal: Ricciardo's competitive advantage within the same Formula Renault 3.5 team made Hartley look distinctly ordinary.

Any notion that Hartley lacks mental fortitude can be quickly dispelled. This was a kid who left his family and home in New Zealand as a teenager and travelled to the other side of the planet to further his career, living first in Germany and then in Milton Keynes.

But maturity and mental strength are not the same thing. Since getting his second chance at F1, Hartley has admitted that he wasn’t prepared to cope with the pressure placed on him first time around.

"I went through a tough time," the 27-year-old told the New Zealand media ahead of his grand prix debut. "To put it bluntly I just wasn't ready. I wasn't mature enough."

Crucially, however, he didn't quit. It would have been easy to return home after the 2011 season - he’d probably be making a very tidy living racing in Australia by now - but Hartley's decision to persevere in Europe goes a long way to explaining why he's arrived in F1.

A SECOND CHANCE IN SPORTSCARS

Like so many other young drivers who don't break into F1, Hartley headed for sportscar racing, first impressing with the little-known Murphy Prototypes squad.

His career rejuvenation seemed to have peaked when he joined Porsche's LMP1 programme - probably the most desirable gig outside F1 - ahead of their top-tier return in 2014. Sharing a car with former Red Bull F1 driver Webber made it feel all the more like a happy ending.

Webber speaks highly of his former teammate, with whom he shared the 2015 FIA World Endurance title. The intensity of long-distance racing can forge incredibly tight bonds between drivers, so there will be few who know Hartley better.

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Webber has praised Hartley's resilience in bouncing back from rejection, and the development of his skills both in and out of the car. The headline quote that did the rounds before the U.S. race was Webber describing Hartley as "a tough little b*****d".

He's clearly tenacious. Hartley first made contact with Porsche by sending an unsolicited email to their team manager and has since won the Le Mans 24 Hours and a world title with the German marque. That's what perseverance can do.

Despite his achievements in sportscars, no one saw him popping up at a grand prix. But when Porsche announced their withdrawal from LMP1 earlier this year, Hartley called Red Bull motorsport advisor Helmut Marko - the man who fired him in 2010 - and made it known that he was available.

Just making that call would have told Marko a great deal about Hartley's ambition.

THE STORY F1 NEEDS

Hartley's appearance and demeanour could create the impression that he's a very laid back guy. In his early years, Red Bull never shied away from playing up to his image in photo shoots. That was fine when he was winning, but when the results dried up it may have counted against him.

Some could have summarised that Hartley just didn't want it enough. In fact, there's no one on the F1 grid who has had to work as hard to get there as Brendon Hartley.

That's not to diminish anyone’s efforts. But the most talented drivers generally ease through the same progression of junior series before being helped into F1 by a top team. Others have the financial clout to open doors.

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With the possible exception of Romain Grosjean, none have had to fight back from a potentially career-ending slump in the way that Hartley has. Not one had to wait until they were 27 to get their break. And there's certainly no one else on the grid whose success is built on strong performances with an Irish LMP2 team.

Liberty Media want drivers with a story worth telling. With an increasing number of youngsters graduating to F1 in their early twenties, backed by very wealthy families, they could end up being in short supply.

Hartley has a story. F1 needs the diversity that he brings, both as a driver and a person. It's not comparable to a footballer going from part-timer to Premier League winner. Motorsport doesn’t work that way.

But to be dropped by Red Bull seven years ago, then fight back to a Formula 1 debut with their junior team - via a Le Mans victory and plenty more sportscar success - is a story worth telling. It'll certainly do more to engage fans than elaborate driver presentations performed by a boxing announcer.

"It's refreshing to have a guy get into F1 not through the bubble of junior categories or by holding a big chequebook," Webber said ahead of Hartley's debut. "It's great that someone got there on the bones of their arse."

Webber knows what it's like to take a winding route to F1 and debut in your mid-
twenties. Was it a coincidence that he became one of the sport’s most popular
characters?

Having been given the nod for this weekend’s race in Mexico, and with Daniil Kvyat now dropped from the Red Bull programme, Hartley will likely see out the season for Toro Rosso. Racing for them full-time next year is a real possibility, too.

If he finds himself signing a contract for 2018 it will complete a remarkable comeback from a driver who seemed to have missed his opportunity almost a decade ago. Given the determination it's taken him to climb back up the mountain, you suspect Hartley always believed it was possible.

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