It has been a whirlwind 24 hours for New Zealand motorsport fans, with both Scott Dixon and Brendon Hartley winning in their respective fields on what would have been Kiwi motorsport-legend Bruce McLaren’s 78th birthday.
Brendon Hartley’s success came first, with the Porsche factory driver claiming his maiden victory for the factory World Endurance Championship (WEC) squad at the 6 hours of Nürburgring, alongside co-drivers Timo Bernhard and colonial-connection Mark Webber in their 919 Hybrid. After making a lengthy early pit stop to repair front-end damage, the trio soon caught their number 17 Porsche teammate. After a significant battle, which even saw the cars run side by side, Hartley’s entry gained the upper hand thanks to penalties against their teammates and chief rivals.
Then as the sun rose on a predictably murky morning in New Zealand, many Kiwi racing fans up and down the country arranged themselves in front of the television (or in my case, the office computer screen) to see whether Scott Dixon could claim an unlikely fourth IndyCar series title. Entering the double-points event, held at California’s Sonoma road-course circuit, the three-time champion had a near-impossible 47-point margin separating himself and series leader Juan Pablo Montoya, with Graham Rahal also in for a chance to take the crown.
But while only four positions behind Dixon, Montoya’s championship charge took a major hit, somewhat literally, when the Colombian driver collided and spun his Penske teammate Will Power mid race. The contact damaged his front wing, forcing him to pit for a replacement and relegating him to the back of the queue of traffic, on a circuit not known for easy passing.
As Dixon won the race in convincing fashion, Montoya fought a valiant fight, cutting through to an impressive sixth position by the chequered flag. But his charge wouldn’t quite be enough — sixth place only being enough to tie with Dixon on overall series points, with preference falling in favour of the Kiwi since he had won more races in 2015; three to Montoya’s two.
Both New Zealand winners honed their craft through our domestic grass-roots scene, first in karts — Dixon as a seven-year-old, Hartley pipping him, having started at the age of six — before moving onto bigger and better categories.
Dixon’s big break came in 1999, when he moved to the United States to pursue glory in America’s Indy Racing League (IRL) and CART (Championship Auto Racing Teams) scene. He joined the Indy Lights series, where he only took two attempts to become champion. After a successful graduation to the CART in 2001, he shifted to the sport’s new pinnacle — the IRL — in 2003, claiming the championship in his first attempt. Since then, Dixon’s time at the top has been pumped full of amazing results, an Indy 500 victory in 2008, and four series victories (2003, 2008, 2013, and now 2015) under his belt.
Dixon now lies in fifth place on the list of the drivers who have claimed the most wins in America’s top open-wheeler formula, only bettered by A. J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, Michael Andretti, and Al Unser Sr — all names that are considered part of American-motorsport royalty.
Hartley meanwhile moved to Germany to chase his dreams of Formula 1 at the very mere age of 16. After competing in Formula Renault — winning the World Series by Renault in 2007 — he was plucked by Red Bull’s motorsport boffins, who could see the scale of his talent, to become part of their well-known motorsport programme. A stellar drive in the 2008 Macau Grand Prix, and Hartley had been selected as a stand in at a Red Bull Formula 1 test for the then-injured Mark Webber.
He spent time as a test driver and simulator driver for Red Bull Racing and Mercedes until 2013, but the dream of Formula 1 was looking thinner by the year, especially with the exponential increase of focus on budget over talent. So in 2012, he started pitching himself towards sports cars. Since then, his stocks have shot through the ceiling, with his 2015 podium brilliance at Le Mans one of several highlights. Will he win Le Mans? I’ll say that it’s just a matter of time.
We’re in a golden age for Kiwi motorsport, and it’s not just something that Dixon and Hartley illustrate. Hayden Paddon has made a genuine impact on the World Rally Championship in 2015, the four New Zealanders in the V8 Supercar championship have all had a shake of the podium, Mitch Evans and Richie Stanaway continue to fight for the podium in GP2 and their respective LMP2 and GTE projects, ‘Mad Mike’ Whiddett is gaining results in an unfamiliar car in Formula Drift, and Earl Bamber is now a Le Mans champion.
We should all be exceptionally proud of not just Dixon and Hartley, but of this moment in the sport — I’m sure Bruce McLaren is.