Motorsport: Brendon Hartley the driving force behind exciting Kiwi-based virtual series

One of New Zealand's most successful motorsport exports is the driving force behind an innovative virtual series, featuring his fellow Kiwis.

Brendon Hartley has raced at the world's most famous race tracks, achieving remarkable success, including a 2018 stint in Formula One and a winning campaign at Le Mans in 2017, alongside countryman Earl Bamber.

Hartley was recruited by Dragon Racing for the 2019/20 Formula E World Championship, but the COVID-19 pandemic put the handbrake on a frustrating season for the 30-year-old.

Just one top-10 finish through the first five rounds had Hartley sitting near the bottom of the points standings.

Despite the disappointing results, the Palmerston North native was gunning for better in the second half of the season, but with the sporting world turned upside down, that just hasn't eventuated.

But motorsport has been as active as any sport since the global lockdown became part of everyday life. Supercars, Nascar, IndyCar and Formula One have ventured into the virtual world, providing entertainment for petrolheads worldwide.

Scott McLaughlin's virtual Supercar
Scott McLaughlin's virtual Supercar Photo credit: Getty
Scott McLaughlin's virtual Indycar
Scott McLaughlin's virtual Indycar Photo credit: Getty
Shane Van Gisbergen's virtual Supercar
Shane Van Gisbergen's virtual Supercar Photo credit: Getty

Hartley, who is quite an accomplished simulator driver in his own right, after working with Ferrari during the 2019 season, got together with fellow NZ racers to form the Racing Local fundraising Eseries event.

"Putting this together has actually been incredibly busy and also educational," Hartley told Newshub, before last Friday's opening event.

"You know, I’ve never been involved in putting such an event together and I have a lot more respect for people who do it on a day-to-day basis, not only in the virtual world, but also in the real world."

The sign-up sheet features some of the biggest names of Kiwi motorsports past, present and future, including Greg Murphy, Scott McLaughlin, Shane Van Gisbergen, Mitch Evans and European-based Ferrari Formula One hopeful Marcus Armstrong. 

"So far, everyone we reached out to in the beginning was really happy to get on board. 

"There’s a few drivers not on the list, in terms of the high-profile guys, because they didn’t have a simulator or they had other commitments. It might be a completely different group of people each week, but the idea is across different disciplines - go-karting, speedway, circuit racing. 

"Everyone’s got involved and we are trying to have a few different platforms, so this week is a dirt oval in a sprint car and a road course in a Radical SR8.

"Maybe some drivers are going to be a specialist on the speedway and some that are going to be a specialist on the road course."

The unique event, set-up to raise money for local New Zealand businesses, features heats, two races and a finale involving all 60 competitors. 

Supercars specialists McLaughlin and Van Gisbergen ended up sharing honours in the first round. Both have been extremely active in the virtual world, with McLaughlin starring across both Supercars and IndyCar series.

Despite Hartley's credentials, his home simulator set-up is a world away from the technology of Ferrari's headquarters in Italy.

He admits some teething problems are likely for the first few weeks. 

"It’s a new world for me - I’m not going to be fighting at the front, it’s meant to be fun. 

"You know there are some super-quick Kiwi boys that are well equipped with the sim racing.  I’m sure Scott McLaughlin and Shane Van Gisbergen -  they’ll be definitely fighting at the front in the circuit racing."

Hartley still holds out hope he can swap his simulator for the real thing in the coming months, including another tilt at the Le Mans 24 Hour enduro with Toyota, who signed him to a multi-year deal, when he completed his F1 duties. 

"I’m very happy with the opportunities that I found on the other side of Formula One.

"To be able to replace Fernando Alonso in the Toyota LMP1 Car was incredible - to go back to endurance racing, which I do love so much and then to also be involved in Formula E, which is a new skill for me altogether.

"I think I can very much say that I’ve landed on my feet there and happy with the way the careers pivoted. 

"In terms of the future, I don’t know... I’m keeping my options open, but right now, I’m very happy where I am.

"I love endurance racing and I hope the Le Mans 24hrs happens again this year."