At times late last season, Daniel Ricciardo would turn to his good friend Brendon Hartley, laugh and say: "Mate, what are we even doing here?"
The Australian was referring to the fact they can now call themselves fellow Formula One drivers. Ahead of the U.S. Grand Prix Hartley had been handed a stunning call-up to Toro Rosso, over seven years after he was cut from the Red Bull programme he and Ricciardo spent their teenage years in. In the time since, Ricciardo has become one of the sport's global superstars, a man seemingly ready to win a world championship given the right machinery. By contrast, 12 months ago New Zealander Hartley was not even on the F1 radar; this Sunday in Melbourne he will line up for his fifth career grand prix ahead of his first full season on the grid.
For Hartley, the return hinged on a confident phone call to Red Bull driver programme chief Helmut Marko, a notoriously prickly character who demands one thing from his various prodigies: Perfection. Hartley had fallen short of those high expectations in 2010 after a disappointing season in Formula Renault 3.5 and GP2. Although a bitter blow at the time, Hartley sees getting cut as a key moment in shaping the career which followed.
"There was no hard feelings because I had a dark period where I lost confidence, I wasn't happy, I wasn't performing well so it was almost a sign of relief," Hartley tells ESPN. "I kind of saw it coming so I was like 'OK, I am out on my own, I need to start making my own decisions with the guys in New Zealand'. It was a bit of a wake-up in some ways but it was no hard feelings. I didn't deal with the pressure and all the things that I should have at the time."
The demotion allowed Hartley to seek new ventures and he went on to forge a reputation in sports car racing that he was never able to in single-seaters, leading him to join Porsche's illustrious World Endurance Championship outfit in 2014. Seven years after being axed by Red Bull, and now boasting two World Endurance Championship titles and a Le Mans 24 Hours victory with the German marquee, Hartley was emboldened. That, coupled with the unexpected news of Porsche's withdrawal from WEC just weeks before the Hungarian Grand Prix and the in-season tests which followed, prompted Hartley to act.
"I think one or two weeks [after the Porsche news] I was talking to some of my friends and advisors and they were like 'you should call Red Bull'. It was just before the Budapest test.
"My initial idea, at least in my head, was that I have a huge amount of experience, I know I am at the top of my game and if there's ever a chance to get a test -- I didn't know if they were testing at their young driver test -- I would love to come and prove myself, as you never know where that leads onto.
"The call to Helmut came just before that test saying 'Hey look, give me an opportunity. At least just give me a day in the sim, a test day. I am ready for it.' Helmut didn't say too much. He said 'I got the message' and that was pretty much it."
Though Marko did not act on the call initially, the seed had been planted. After the Budapest tests and the summer break which followed, the Austrian returned Hartley's call and soon the Kiwi was back in a Red Bull facility to see if he was ready to finally step up to Toro Rosso at the age of 27.
"The Hungary test had been and gone, but I think it was just after Singapore, Helmut gave me a call and just asked if I'd come to the simulator, which I did. About a week later, I went and I did a test and I didn't ask many questions at all. I think two weeks after that I was making my Formula One debut. It really did happen that quick and when I had that first call, even when I went in for the simulator day, I didn't really have any understanding that I am going to be making my Formula One debut."
Although racing drivers rely most on muscle-memory when in the cockpit, Hartley admits Marko's return phone call suddenly had him reflecting on one of his biggest fears as a young Red Bull prospect.
"The call would have gone very different [in 2010]. I wouldn't have had the same confidence in myself.
"Even the Helmut call to ask about the simulator, I remember laughing a bit because I saw the number calling and I remembered the feeling when I was 16 and getting the call, it was always an elevated heart rate because he normally called when you had a bad race. There was never really a good call from Helmut as that time so things have changed a bit. I am a lot more prepared for all these situations than when I was at 18. I am stronger now, I am a stronger person."
Hartley relays an amusing anecdote on the period between the initial call and the surprise announcement in the lead up to his debut in Austin. Showing visible signs of stress after the news of Porsche's withdrawal and juggling several opportunities -- he was also in talks with an IndyCar team for 2018 -- as he moved closer and closer to an F1 return, he decided the best way to deflect from letting the news slip was simply to hide in plain sight.
"There was quite a few funny occasions where I was very close to getting that deal for Austin and people could see I was quite stressed because there was quite a lot going on behind the scenes to make it happen. I quite often joked during that time that 'yeah, I am just working on the old F1 deal' -- it came across quite funny as no one obviously thought I was being serious. Two weeks later or whatever, the penny would have dropped."
Even his friend Ricciardo was caught unawares when the news was announced. The two men, who remained close in their years in different series, sometimes have to pinch themselves when they remember where they have ended up.
"It's funny, every now and then we are chatting Formula One and he just starts laughing -- we've been good mates even though for the last few years I've not been here. It seems surreal. A couple of times he's just looked at me and laughed and said 'mate, what are we doing here', 'how did this happen?'. It was a bit crazy for us, neither of us saw it coming, no-one saw it coming."
In truth, Hartley's opening four races were frustrating. Toro Rosso and Renault's relationship was winding down into acrimony as the reliability issues piled up, meaning the New Zealander spent most weekends dealing with a failure or a grid penalty. Not only that, he was mixing Toro Rosso with his final Porsche WEC commitments, meaning a fatigued Hartley showed up at the F1 finale in Abu Dhabi.
But it gave Hartley invaluable experience and he feels it puts him in a "dream" scenario for the Australian Grand Prix, the first of 21 races this season.
"I was happy how I dealt with it, all things considered. I tried not to let the attention fluster me, I just kept things simple and not over-think things, which was important.
"It's not just tyres, there's loads to learn, so having those first four races under my belt at the start of the season is fantastic, it's given me the winter to digest and think about.
"There's so many little experiences you put in the back of your mind and are great ahead of your first full season. Now I obviously have a lot more time to properly prepare, to be honest having some experience under my belt now is pretty much a dream scenario."
Coverage of Formula One in the U.S.A. will return to ESPN this year and begins at Melbourne's Albert Park with the Australian Grand Prix. Full programing details below (all times Eastern Time):
Rolex Australian Grand Prix
Practice 1 - Thursday, March 22, 9:00 PM - ESPN3
Practice 2 - Friday, March 23, 1:00 AM - ESPN3
Practice 3 - Friday, March 23, 10:00 PM - ESPNEWS
Qualifying - Saturday, March 24, 2:00 AM - ESPN2
Race - Sunday, March 25, 1:00 AM - ESPN2