Young Kiwi driver Brendon Hartley reckons he's finally found his niche in motor racing and it shouldn't be a surprise that it comes in endurance racing with glamour manufacturer Porsche.
Hartley has always had the ability to attract big names in this most competitive game - stints with Red Bull and Mercedes took him to the very edge of Formula One without quite cracking it.
And amid frustrations he's shown the patience and fortitude to go with his outright speed that should serve him well in his new long-haul surroundings as he gets set to contest the 2014 World Endurance Championship, an eight-meeting series raced in cars running on the edge of technology.
Seven events will be six-hour races and the other will be the famous 24-hour Le Mans, a race Hartley is no stranger to.
Driving for Porsche is still a "pinch myself" moment for the 24-year-old from Palmerston North. In endurance car terms, it's the equivalent of Ferrari giving him an F1 seat. This is big-time.
Porsche is synonymous with Le Mans, winning 16 times. But they haven't won for 16 years and they want Hartley and five other drivers in their two-car team to bring the champagne moment back to the famous stable.
"It's been a long journey," Hartley admits of a career that started in karts in 2002, dominating the Kiwi scene before switching to Europe seven years ago.
The track has had a few spills along the way to test a youngster. But Hartley took the Red Bull setback on the chin, just as he did the frustrations of getting so close with Mercedes.
He faced some brutal realities when he stared himself in the mirror a couple of years ago and decided to make the switch to the endurance scene. He's never looked back other than to check opponents who are usually in his rear-view mirror.
"This is a dream that has become a reality. I have had some good and bad times in Europe. Now to be picked up by the most successful and iconic Le Mans team is incredible. There's no cooler car manufacturer to be racing for than Porsche."
Hartley said that when he drifted away from Mercedes to do an endurance car test at Le Mans, "I realised my passion".
A driver for hire, Hartley got enough gigs to turn some heads. Successes in Europe and the United States saw Porsche come knocking on his door.
They had watched his results and analysed every one of his laps and finally "they wanted to meet me as a person".
Hartley was as slick in the interview chair as he is in the driver's seat. Last weekend in Stuttgart he was announced as the youngest driver in Porsche's team along with Australian F1 ace Mark Webber, German Marc Lieb, Timo Bernhard, Romain Dumas, and Neel Jani.
With all his team-mates in their 30s, Hartley believes he has an ideal opportunity to learn from their experience though he's sure he can make his own mark.
"It's kind of strange . . . I'm the young guy again, just when I was getting away from that in the single-seaters."
Hartley says while the endurance cars are different, the principles remain the same.
"With the roof over your head visibility is always a bit of an issue. Other than that it's a race car . . . it's got a big engine, lot of downforces and four wheels.
"I take a pretty simple approach to driving - you have to get the car around the track as quick as you can.The mental challenge is slightly different in these longer races which is why you need a lot of experience and that's why you don't see a lot of younger guys.
"It's an endurance race but these cars are reliable enough that we can push them to the limit for 24 hours. That's when consistency becomes a big part of the game as well as speed."
Endurance racing offers Hartley the chance of a long career, especially being picked up at a young age. It also offers a mindshift that he's enjoying.
"It's quite unique sharing the car with team-mates. It's something you don't do in a single seater. But as you start working together and forming those relationships with the team-mates, it's amazing, an amazing part of racing to be in.
"It's a team thing, it's not just about the individual any more which makes it kind of special. You are part of this big team and as the driver you are the final piece of this big puzzle."
Hartley is back in New Zealand briefly. He will return to Europe next month to help with testing and development ahead of the season-opener at Silverstone in Britain with races in Europe, Asia, the Americas and Middle East to follow.
But it's Le Mans that matters most. He has had two appearances there in the last two years racing for Murphy Prototypes in the second tier class. He completed 15 hours last year and finished seventh this year.
Now he's going to return as a headline act, splitting 2 -hour shifts among three drivers.
He's excited about the Porsche 919, a hybrid car.
"Le Mans is very much focused on efficiency now with everything aero and getting the fuel use better . . . it's a long race and the more time you can spend out of the pits the better."
And a new Porsche road car should be waiting for Hartley on his return to Europe, a perk of the job.
AT A GLANCE
Name: Brendon Hartley
2003: Youngest winner of a NZ Formula Ford race
2005: Winner of first Toyota Race Series event
2006: Races for Red Bull junior team in Europe
2007: Wins World Series by Renault, Eurocup
2008-9: Red Bull F1 test driver
2010: Red Bull and Toro Rosso F1 reserve driver
2011: Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 test driver
2012: Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 test driver Begins driving endurance races, 3rd in two European events
2013: Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 test driver Endurance success in the US and Europe, including seventh in Le Mans LMP2 Signs with Porsche for World Endurance Series
- Sunday News
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