Brendon Hartley is set to embark on a new chapter in his racing career as he counts down to Sunday's Formula 1 Grand Prix season opener in Melbourne.

The 28-year-old New Zealander was handed a shock Formula 1 debut during the back end of last year but already feels more comfortable heading into this season.

"It is definitely a new beginning," Hartley said. "Last year was a perfect preparation for this. I was thrown in the deep end. Although I have been preparing all my life I was very unprepared for that moment. Now, having all these months to prepare, this is my big opportunity to prove that I deserve to be in Formula 1 and that I have a future career there."

His Toro Rosso team made the off-season switch to Honda engines and the initial two-week pre-season test in Barcelona yielded strong results.

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While impossible to accurately gauge how the new car stacked up with the rest of the field there was certainly optimism within the team.

"We are starting to get a bit of a picture of where everyone is at but until qualifying Saturday afternoon, where everyone really puts all their cards on the table, we won't really know," Hartley told Radio Sport's D'Arcy Waldegrave.

"The brief for us drivers from Toro Rosso is that they expect the start of the season will be tougher but they have really high targets during the season to improve and develop.

"There has been a huge amount of work and effort to change to Honda. It is not just a question of popping another engine in the back – it is a very complicated task. A lot of effort has gone into the integration of Honda.

"If we can score a point in the first race, it will be my debut point in Formula 1 that would be a big success."

Even if the car isn't as fast or reliable as the winter testing suggested there is always an added chance of securing a good first-up result as other teams battle teething issues and drivers search to find their rhythm after the lengthy break.

"It is a big milestone for me to get a point in Formula 1," Hartley said. "There are a lot of drivers that tried and never succeeded. It is a really tough midfield battle this year as well as it was last year.

"We can talk about the big three teams – it is pretty clear they are going to be the top three teams again but then the battle behind is very fierce and very close.

"Those last point-scoring positions are hard to come by."

The Toro Rosso of Brendon Hartley during the tests at the Barcelona-Catalunya Circuit. Photo / Getty Images
The Toro Rosso of Brendon Hartley during the tests at the Barcelona-Catalunya Circuit. Photo / Getty Images

There is likely to be a lot of support for the Palmerston North product in Melbourne. The proximity to New Zealand and it being the first race of the season is likely to draw big crowds and a significant number of Kiwis making the trip across.

"I'm fully expecting there to be a few Kiwis there and I ran into a familiar faces in Melbourne this morning getting my coffee and breakfast," he said.

"When I was home over summer every second or third person I chatted to said they were coming. Hopefully they have brought a few New Zealand flags.

"It is the closest I have driven to home in a long, long time."

Hartley is in action on the track for the first time on Friday with two 90-minute practice sessions.

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