Winning the Le Mans 24 Hours, winning the World Endurance Championship, making your Formula 1 debut and earning a full-time grand prix drive for the following season. Any one of those things alone would be enough for consideration for Autosport’s top 50. But Brendon Hartley did all of them – also winning Petit Le Mans and the Dubai 24 Hours along the way.
As well as being a very accomplished member of an all-star Porsche WEC line-up in which it was difficult for any individual to stand out, his shock F1 debut with Toro Rosso proved just how good he is. Despite being stymied by grid penalties on all four of his outings (totalling 65 places), his pace, experience and professionalism impressed the team and Red Bull, which had dropped him in 2010, earning him a full campaign next year.
Perhaps that story of redemption is, above all, the thing that makes 2017 so remarkable for Hartley.
Hartley’s Busy Season
There was a time when racing drivers would start to wind down in October and November. That happens less nowadays, with many championships stretching deep into the winter. But few were as busy as Brendon Hartley, who was in action over eight consecutive weekends across three championships and four continents.
“It’s not straightforward, I had eight weekends in a row,” said Hartley of the challenge of jumping from car to car. From the weekend of October 7-8 through to November 25-26, Hartley started four F1 races for Toro Rosso, three World Endurance Championship rounds in the Porsche 919 Hybrid and Petit Le Mans in a Nissan Onroak DPi. This puts him in a perfect position to compare the challenges of driving in F1 compared to LMP1.
“There’s a lot more you can do in WEC. You’re a lot more restricted here in terms of driving aids, there’s a lot of things that we can make automated in LMP1. Also on the drivetrain, when you’ve got full-wheel drive, you’ve got traction control. So from that point of view, the rules are more open.
“But I would say that a Formula 1 car’s definitely more of a challenge to drive, because of the lack of driving aids and also the speed that we’re going.”
They live near each other, train alongside each other and now they work for the same company. The World Rally Championship’s most famous besties recently competed together (co-driving and driving alternate stages) at the Monza Rally, giving Andreas Mikkelsen a unique insight into what it takes to be Thierry Neuville.
Asked about his mate, Mikkelsen said: “Being in a car with him, I must say, it was very, very impressive and really he is very, very good… as a co-driver! I think maybe the time has come for him to stop driving and become a professional co-driver!
“Seriously, he is a really clean driver, the car is straight and not much drama. And he’s quick as well. It’s going to be really interesting to work with Thierry next year, it’s going to be close – but I’m not worried about our friendship. It’s not like we’re fighting for the same piece of track going into a corner…”
Neuville’s big chance lost?
Has Thierry Neuville had his chance? Has his moment passed? There’s definitely a section of the service park who believe so – and it’s hard to argue that the Belgian’s going to get a better shot at the title than this season.
He flew out of the blocks. Twice. In Monte and in Sweden. And twice he dropped it. By the end of round two, given his sensational speed early in each of those events, he should have been heading to Mexico with 60 points on the table. Instead, he took eight.
Did the car break in Germany or did he break it with a cut too far? It’s a tough one. But there’s no denying the 30 points shipped there. And then there’s Finland, where he simply couldn’t find any speed on a rally which commands nothing but speed. He departed Jyvaskyla with 11 points, 19 down on the dream scenario.
So, for whatever reason, 101 points went south for Neuville this season. And what did he lose the championship by? Twenty-four.
Neuville won and led more rallies than anybody; he led and won more stages than anybody else.
That’s what’s commonly known as a gilt-edged opportunity missed. Landing just one of those wins at the top of the season would likely have been enough for it to be his name and not Sebastien Ogier on this year’s silverware.
Neuville won and led more rallies than anybody; he led and won more stages than anybody else. In terms of speed alone, Neuville was the man this year.
Anndreas Mikkelsen’s arrival in the Hyundai team is only going to complicate matters for Neuville next year. He’s had everything pretty much his own way in the Korean squad this season, largely courtesy of some exceptional pace and four wins in the i20 Coupe WRC.
The same won’t be said about next year. As we saw in Spain and Australia, Mikkelsen has speed enough to win rallies in the sister car. And next year he will. And, if Hayden Paddon and Dani Sordo find their feet and form with these not-so-new World Rally Cars, then it’ll be even tougher.
Talk to the man himself about it and he’ll turn that on its head and talk about missed opportunities this year and winning more events next season.
Whatever next season brings, however, he must be kicking himself when he looks back at 2017.
It’s sad that the four-time champion’s season will primarily be centered around the Indy 500 – his 232mph pole speed, being held up at gunpoint in a Taco Bell, and then cheating death in a raceday shunt.
Because it's Scott Dixon’s stunning consistency and pace for most of the rest of the season that kept him in the running for the title. Despite he and the team having to learn the deficient Honda aerokit following Chip Ganassi’s offseason switch from Chevrolet, Dixon was rarely out to lunch.
Only an unfortunate yellow at St. Pete and unfortunate strategy at Long Beach prevented him from winning the first two races, and he might have beaten Power at Texas, too, had Takuma Sato not suffered a brain fart.
Dixon’s Road America win was well deserved, but his relentless pursuit of the Penskes at Gateway, a short oval where HPD cars suffered most, was no less impressive.
Whichever way you look at it, Rene Rast’s performance in winning the DTM title in his first full season in the series was astonishing.
Other drivers joked that, with his 30th birthday well in the rear-view mirror, Rast couldn’t be described as a rookie. But it was joshing in an affectionate way for a driver who is as popular as he is fast. With the Team Rosberg Audi squad, he was near the top of the points table all year and finally wrested the crown from under the noses of stablemate Jamie Green and late-season series leader Mattias Ekstrom (who was in Audi’s traditional number-one Abt squad) at the final race.
A famously versatile racer, Rast also finished on the podium in the Daytona 24 Hours with the Spirit of Daytona-run Riley-Gibson, and claimed third position in the Nurburgring 24 Hours and the Paul Ricard 6 Hours with the WRT Audi R8 LMS team.
Jamie Green On Rene Rast
Jamie Green may be the moral DTM champion in the eyes of some, but he has no hesitation in rating Team Rosberg stablemate Rast.
“He’s stuck at it and come up through Porsches and GTs – he’s got a lot of natural ability and he’s got the right attitude as well,” says Green. “It was a good time to join the DTM, because it was the first year without tyre blankets. So he didn’t have any preconceptions how to approach that [putting in a new-tyre run in qualifying]. He did a good job in qualifying – that makes life easier in the DTM, and that was his main strength. And he found himself in a well-set-up team, because Rosberg have developed into a complete unit. So from my perspective it wasn’t such a big surprise. We had a good package and he was talented enough to make the most of it.”
Rast replaced Adrien Tambay, dropped at the end of 2016, in the Rosberg line-up and Green found him a good team-mate to work with. “He’s a confident character and pretty straightforward,” he says. “And he’s got a decent sense of humour, which makes life easier. There was a good atmosphere in the team and I think we’ll stay together next year. He’s good enough to keep you sharp, and doesn’t create a bad atmosphere.”
Rosberg, in Green’s eyes, has supplanted long-time Audi spearhead Team Abt as the number-one team for the Ingolstadt marque. “You only have to look at the teams’ standings this year,” he points out. “The team has developed in the last couple of years and now it’s strong enough to run two cars at a high level. And this year they had two drivers capable of exploiting that.”
Separated by just 13 points in the world championship, and by less than 0.1% on pure pace across the season, there was very little to choose between Perez and his new Force India team-mate Ocon in 2017.
Perez was everything we’ve come to expect since his mid-2015 breakthrough – a fast and ultra-reliable points scorer, whom Force India believes is operating at the peak of his powers.
And that’s what makes Ocon’s rise to prominence this year so impressive. To push Perez that hard showed an extraordinary rate of progression, which also created tension between the drivers at times.
Once the championship returned to the tracks at which Ocon completed his debut part-season for Manor in 2016, Ocon claimed a narrow edge in the qualifying battle (5-4) and was 0.072% faster than his team-mate.
Force India had its pick of Manor’s Mercedes juniors at the end of 2016, and Ocon has done nothing yet to suggest Force India backed the wrong horse.
Tom McCullough, Force India chief engineer, on the two drivers
Did you notice any change in Sergio this year, with Nico Hulkenberg gone and the team looking to Sergio to be the reference point?
He naturally assumed the role of team leader, just because of Esteban’s lack of experience with the team. What was harder for us this year was that everything changed – the tyres were different, the car was totally different, and we had a new driver. It would have been easier to have Esteban 12 months earlier and integrated him. Sergio was able to rely on his experience – we definitely leant quite heavily on Sergio at the start. But a lot of it was us building experience and confidence in Esteban, and Esteban getting up to speed, which thankfully he did very quickly. You park Melbourne qualifying, which was very difficult for us as team and him in particular, but from then on it’s been really impressive what he’s been able to do. He’s a real hard worker, he embraces the way we try to work, and he’s seen Sergio work hard.
From the outside, people don’t think Sergio works hard – he’s got this lovely, carefree attitude – but he came here hungry to make sure his career goes well, and his work ethic is impressive. I think Esteban has seen that - Sergio knows which areas to focus on, how to work with people. As a team, we’ve been phenomenally impressed with Esteban. Every now and then we have to remind ourselves of his lack of experience. This is his shot, and he’s not left any T uncrossed or i un-dotted.
How was Esteban able to make such impressive progress so quickly?
The natural car control, the natural ability, was there right from the beginning. But his ability to work with engineers and a group of people is natural to him as well. He’s an endearing character. He also watches Sergio, who is good at that as well - realises how it’s working for him, and thinks ‘I want to be part of that’. A lot of people underestimate the value of the team-mate. I think Esteban has been very fortunate to have Sergio as his reference.
Sergio seems close to a fully-rounded driver now.
He’s definitely right at the peak of his career – this is the phase for him where the consistency is there in qualifying and racing. We’ve seen that over the last 24 months, if not a bit more. We’ve been very, very happy to have Sergio there, and it’s been great how hard Esteban has pushed him.
What traits have you noticed in Esteban’s driving – how does he compare to Hulkenberg and how does his driving style dovetail with Sergio’s?
I think Esteban’s natural driving style would be closer to Nico Hulkenberg’s than Sergio’s. Sergio is a driver whose real strengths are his natural rear-tyre management – throttle control, sliding the rears on entry and exit of the corners. He’s got a very good feel for the rear tyres. He does that partly by being very hard on the front tyres. Their driving styles are not that dissimilar, but for sure Esteban would be closer to Nico, though I’d say Esteban is a little bit closer to Sergio [than Nico was]. A lot of young drivers tend to be naturally hard on everything, and sometimes with the current generation of Pirelli tyres that’s not always the best way to be, but the good thing with Esteban is that he found the right balance very, very quickly.
A really impressive job by both our drivers this year, which is why they both scored similar points. There’s been very little between them. With Esteban, the moment we got to Spa, which in effect was the end of his first full year, the level did step up I think. So often we look at the overlay in the data and there’s nothing in it between them. Personally, I’m looking forward to next year seeing how it all rattles out, because they both realise each other is bloody good!
There were several flashpoints between them, which started at Montreal and carried through to Spa – where did that come from and why did it take so long to get on top of?
At the start of the year it was important in each of their heads that they come out on top of the other one. The pressure was there on Sergio to not be beaten by the young up-and-coming guy; for Esteban, he’s trying to show Mercedes and the rest of the world that he’s got the ability to be better than the established driver. So, it was always going to be fierce. Because Sergio and Nico were at a similar stage of their careers previously, there wasn’t quite that same need to establish themselves. A lot of people from rival teams have said to me what a disaster it’s been and how badly it’s been managed, but looking at other teams – some with one very good driver and one very bad one – we had a slightly difficult phase, but they were nice problems to have. The good thing is, having been through all that and seen how the team has reacted, the drivers have really changed – it’s a better relationship than they had even at the start of the season.
Sainz continues to force his way out of Max Verstappen’s shadow with consistently strong performances of his own. His rate of development is arguably on a slightly slower burn to Verstappen’s, but Red Bull is desperate to keep Sainz as a back-up option for its A-team, should Daniel Ricciardo leave, while Sainz’s form continues to make a strong case that he deserves a seat at the top table.
He is still occasionally clumsy in wheel-to-wheel battle, but delivered some truly excellent drives in a tricky Toro Rosso car this season, before a late-season loan move to the Renault works team allowed Sainz to get up to speed in his new 2018 environment four races early.
His Austin debut was outstanding, and though he is not quite on Nico Hulkenberg’s level yet, Sainz has immediately slotted neatly into the big gap left by Jolyon Palmer, and created high expectations within the team for next season.
Trackside operations director Alan Permane on Sainz working with Hulkenberg at Renault
“I think the two will drive each other forward, and I don’t just mean on-track, I mean off-track as well. There are interesting ideas Carlos has got in terms of brake mapping, and stuff to do with the way he likes to drive that maybe we haven’t thought about that he’s brought with him, and maybe that will transfer to the other car. I think both of them will push each other forward, and I don’t just mean in terms of finding another half-tenth in qualifying, I mean with set-up as well. They are both exploring different areas. As a team, having Carlos in is fantastic. He’s ever so easy to work with. He’s good and he’s got a good team of people around him – he’s very well set up. We’ve got a very good line-up now – a very strong basis for next year.”
Sainz's Chinese Grand Prix
There were several outstanding performers in China: Lewis Hamilton completely controlled things from the front; Sebastian Vettel charged impressively to second after his strategy backfired; Max Verstappen produced a mesmerising first lap to leap from 16th to seventh; and Fernando Alonso was heroic in the weedy McLaren-Honda. But Carlos Sainz Jr’s race to seventh was the pick of a brilliant bunch.
His Toro Rosso was the only non-Mercedes, Ferrari or Red Bull runner to finish on the lead lap, despite dropping to 18th on the first lap and spinning behind the safety car after starting the race on slicks on a wet track. Sainz matched the pace of the leaders at times, in tricky mixed conditions, and was miles faster than any of his midfield competitors. He has several highlights from this season, but describes China as “my most special Sunday”.
“When you have a car that gives you confidence whenever it’s damp, whenever it’s tricky conditions, you can always extract that bit more,” he says. “I was thinking I made the wrong decision on tyres, especially when I saw 99% of the field on the inter, and then spinning on the second or third lap. But, all of a sudden, I saw myself catching the leading group. Obviously, they pulled away when the track dried out, but I enjoyed that race a lot."
Joining the fledgling Renault works team represents the potential shot at Formula 1’s big time that Hulkenberg’s talent has long seemed worthy of. At times during his over-extended stint in grand prix racing’s midfield it has looked as though his motivation has suffered for the lack of career progression, but any lingering doubts should be dispelled by an excellent first season at Enstone.
He is one of several drivers whose attacking style has been rewarded by the move towards faster cars with greater grip. Hulkenberg went unbeaten by his team-mates in qualifying and almost single-handedly dragged Renault to sixth in the constructors’ championship.
Hulkenberg’s feedback was also key to mid-season developments that transformed the car into one that became the class of the midfield on certain circuits. After a difficult comeback season in 2016, Renault needed a driver around whom it could build as it attempts to become a championship force again. The early signs suggest Hulkenberg was an excellent choice.
Alan Permane, Renault trackside operations director on Hulkenberg's first season
What were your expectations of Nico coming into the season and what’s it been like working with him for the first time?
I think expectations were it was going to be a step up for us, honestly. We were pleasantly surprised in testing - in his approach to everything, how methodical he is with set-up. You could tell in those early days that he knew what he was doing, and he was very careful to make small changes and revisit them while he was learning the car. Something that brought it home to me very early on with him in testing - we took the fuel out, put some new tyres on, and ‘bang’ there’s a lap time. You think ‘OK that was good’ and then you put another set on and think ‘he’s going to find another half-second now’ and he didn’t, he may have found half a tenth. That is a real mark of a quality driver – they can find the limit straight away. That was very impressive.
[Nico] can get pretty much everything there is in a car out of it, and he knows when he’s done a good lap.
I suppose that gives you a much more consistent reference for where the car is at?
No, I don’t think it really changes that, I think it just shows he knows what he’s doing and finding the limit quickly. The other thing with Nico, after a good or bad race, he will take all the emotion out of it and talk for half an hour about the car - not what happened in the race, just about what the car does. That’s not an easy skill, and I don’t know if that’s the German side of him coming out – very direct and that sort of thing – but less experienced and lesser talented drivers find it very difficult sometimes to take the emotion away. Their answers aren’t less honest, just clouded. With him you get the nuts and bolts, which is really good.
What other strengths have you noticed, and what weaknesses - because this is a driver overlooked by most of the top teams?
True. I think strengths, he can get pretty much everything there is in a car out of it, and he knows when he’s done a good lap. There have been a couple of qualifyings this year where he’s absolutely got the perfect lap – Singapore for example, Silverstone was a good session. I don’t think it’s a secret that we brought a new diffuser to Silverstone and it wasn’t really an overall downforce gain, it was a different philosophy. That was largely driven by his comments about the car - telling us where it was weak and what we needed to focus on, and it really transformed the car. Weakness is not so easy, because we’ve only known him less than a year. At the start of the season I certainly had some questions over long-run [pace] and I sometimes felt he was being a bit too cautious with the tyres. In Bahrain, we had a pretty terrible race after qualifying really well. But I think those doubts have largely gone now – it was far more car than him. There’s nothing particular that shows up weakness wise.
From your personal experience, would you put Nico in the Alonso/Kubica category of drivers – one that a team with Renault’s championship ambitions can build around?
Estonia’s first ever World Rally Championship event winner Markko Martin is not a man to waste his words. Even less so his energies in getting behind a potential young talent. Which is what made Ott Tanak interesting when Martin first introduced his junior countryman to Autosport eight years ago.
“He’s quick,” Martin said, “but still there are some… rough edges.”
That speed carried him into the 2010 Pirelli Star Driver scheme, where he showed his five class mates – including Hayden Paddon – a clean pair of heels for much of the season; he built a near-three minute lead on the opening PSD round in Turkey and then rolled his Mitsubishi into a ball with three stages remaining. Such stories and frustrations have littered Tanak’s career since. Until this year. This year, he got everything together, won twice, played himself into a potentially championship-winning position and delivered on Marrko’s words.
There is something Nico Rosberg-esque in the way Bottas so honestly and studiously works on his own weaknesses, refusing to cave to the pressure created by his own shortcomings being laid bare in the harsh spotlight that comes with racing at the very front of the F1 grid.
Where Bottas has deviated from the Rosberg path thus far is in happily maintaining the delicate equilibrium of harmony within Mercedes, from which world champion team-mate Lewis Hamilton clearly benefited in 2017, and for which the team is extremely grateful.
“It was difficult to find the right driver, but we got just the right guy into the team,” says team boss Toto Wolff. “The dynamic between Valtteri and Lewis made us develop the car in a very efficient way, and made us win the two championships, so not for one second do I regret where we are today.
“In the past I always believed a very fierce rivalry between team-mates would be good for the team, because they would be pushing each other. I think the lesson I learned is that it is probably not true - you need two team-mates that perform at a high level that keep pushing each other in the car, but the rivalry shouldn’t spill over into controversy outside of the car.
“The mindset and the relationship between the two made us stronger, gave an open and honest environment - the exchange with the engineers is very transparent and very clear. Our very fast, difficult car, we got it into a good place also because the two worked so well together.”