You might be forgiven for asking that particular question, especially if you started following F1 recently. Hartley was picked up by Red Bull way back in 2006 and showed his credentials by winning the European Formula Renault 2.0 championship in 2007. Despite this, and despite the youngster being made Red Bull’s test driver for 2008, and reserve driver for 2009 and 2010, he was dropped by Red Bull after mediocre Formula 3 campaigns over those three years.
From here, he plugged away in Formula 3.5 and GP2 for a year before making a switch to LMP2 endurance racing and sports cars, before landing a dream drive with Porsche as the German giant made its return to LMP1 racing in 2014.
Showing his talents away from F1
Hartley grabbed this opportunity with both hands, winning the WEC title with Porsche the following year with Timo Bernhard and former F1 driver Mark Webber as his teammates. Porsche struggled in 2016, but have come back strong this year, allowing Hartley to once again show his talents, winning this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans and leading this year’s championship with teammates Bernhard and fellow Kiwi Earl Bamber.
The Porsche stablemates lost an early chance to clinch the title this weekend after horrendous conditions meant they finished fourth as former F1 drivers Sebastien Buemi, Kazuki Nakajima and Anthony Davidson took the win in a truncated race. The remaining WEC races do not clash with the remaining F1 events, so even if Hartley is drafted in for the rest of the season by Toro Rosso, he will still have the opportunity to win his second WEC title.
An unusual opportunity
Toro Rosso going for Hartley after he has spent so much time away from F1 and the Red Bull program is quite unusual for them; Usually once someone has had their chance, they don’t get another. This could well be a sign that the talent farm at Red Bull is drying up somewhat, or at least not working quickly enough to deliver another driver of Pierre Gasly’s calibre this season. There are also a raft of former Toro Rosso drivers who are performing well in other series (Sebastien Bourdais and Sebastien Buemi come to mind), but the issue with those guys is that they have already driven for the team, so Toro Rosso would essentially know what they would be getting in the car.
By giving Hartley a chance, something he never got first time around despite being reserve driver for two years and performing several tests with Toro Rosso and Red Bull, they are trying something new. Having seen him win the WEC title and Le Mans since he left, it’s also likely that Red Bull feel they may have made a mistake by dropping him so early in his career.
Hartley returns as the complete package
Red Bull and Toro Rosso are famous for giving young drivers a chance, sometimes with exceptional results (the two current Red Bull drivers are prime examples of this), but sometimes drivers simply aren’t ready for F1 at that point in their careers and take longer to fully develop their full potential.
With Hartley appearing to have made that jump, by being on the verge of becoming a double world champion in one of the world’s top motorsport series, now seems as good a time as any for him to show Red Bull that dropping him was a mistake. He now knows what it takes to win races and championships at the highest level, and returns to the sport a more complete driver than he left it. It also gives him an opportunity to stake his claim for a 2018 drive in F1, with Porsche pulling the plug on their LMP1 racing program at the end of this season.
This obviously also piles the pressure on Daniil Kvyat, as if he is outperformed by the Kiwi this weekend, after Hartley has been out of a Formula 1 car for nearly eight years, then the Russian could find his F1 career on very thin ice.