'I'm a pro driver now' - Brendon Hartley
A chirpy Brendon Hartley now sees himself as a professional driver who no longer has to raise millions of dollars to secure drives in Europe.
He works up to three days a week as the Mercedes Formula 1 team's simulator driver at Brackley, near where he lives at Milton Keynes in England, the motorsport hub in the Silverstone area.
Hartley also drove the Le Mans prototype sports cars, helped out the Ocean Technology team with a few drives in GP2 and test drove the Mercedes AMG car at Magny Cours in France.
Hartley moves in high circles. In the same garage there was Mercedes' seven-times world champion Michael Schumacher.
Schumacher has retired again, so Hartley is bound to encounter his replacement, former world champion Lewis Hamilton, who Hartley met when he was the Red Bull and Toro Rosso F1 reserve driver. Nico Rosberg is the other Mercedes driver, but the reserve driver slot is vacant.
"It was a pretty big privilege for me to have tested for three Formula 1 teams," Hartley said. "I have to pinch myself.'
He is just back from the English winter for two weeks with his family in Palmerston North, in good spirits after what he felt was a successful season. He also drove a Mercedes F1 car at Goodwood and classic cars for a friend.
"It's nice to think I'm a real pro now and I don't have to pay someone a lot of money," he said.
"I'm happy to get paid, rather than to pay."
And he had enough spare time to indulge in squash, rock-climbing and mountainbiking. During the Olympics he was at Old Trafford to watch New Zealand play Egypt in football.
At Hampton Downs on Monday, he drove Toyota's new GT86 sports car and had two laps in a Toyota Racing Series (TRS) car.
"I just jumped in; the car was quicker than what I remembered."
He said speed-wise it was similar to a Formula 3 car, perfect to give young drivers experience to get into Europe.
Hartley was plucked from the Toyota series by Red Bull and he won the first TRS race, at Timaru. He was startled on Monday when he realised that was nine years ago.
Monday was his first glimpse of Hampton Downs. "It was a very interesting track, blind corners; I was really impressed. But Manfeild will always be my home track."
Hartley is now 23 and way more experienced than when he started out in Europe.
"When I did my first test in Formula 1, I was 18 years old at the time; I don't think I was ready.
"In a lot of respects I was probably too young. It's nice to put it behind me."
He won't know until January or February, when the deals are done in Europe, what beckons in 2013. He loved driving for Murphy Prototypes this year and was well paid to do it.
"I debuted at the Le Mans 24-hour, which is the biggest race on Earth."
While he doesn't have a racing seat for next year, things should pan out.
"There is always a lot of uncertainty. I'm confident I will get a good drive.
"I'm not disappointed I'm not going to be in Formula 1 next year."
The simulator testing could lead to "other things".
"It gives me massive experience. Every single part is tested on the simulator, with millions of calculations going on every split second."
- © Fairfax NZ News