Brendon Hartley was just eight when he told an amused kart racing audience he was headed for the top of world motor sport.

Tomorrow morning, the 27-year-old sensation from Palmerston North will make his debut in the Formula One, the first Kiwi to do since 1984.

Hartley was accepting a trophy at a karting meet in Auckland, clad in a t-shirt dad Bryan had brought back from a Grand Prix, featuring French FI driver Jean Alesi.

"He was wearing it up on the stage and then just sort of pulled it out and told everyone... when he grows up he was going to be like Jean Alesi. And he brought the place down. It was funny as," Bryan Hartley recalls.


Fast forward two decades, and his son was "jumping around like a jumping bean" with joy at making the pinnacle of his sport.

"He just rang me up and said, 'I've done it! We've got a Formula One drive'," Bryan said.

"He's over the moon, 'cause it's been his dream to get to there, and he's done it."

Hartley will race for the Red Bull-owned Toro Rosso team in the United States Grand Prix, starting at 8am NZT in the Texas capital.

An "unbelievably" thrilled Bryan didn't know how much motor racing advice he could give his son nowadays, but had told him: "Use your head and bring it home".

Bryan, a gifted motor racer himself (runner-up at the 1995 NZ Grand Prix in Manfield), said it was hard to contemplate his son being in the FI. Only eight other New Zealanders have ever done so, including the legendary Bruce McLaren, Chris Amon and Denny Hulme.

"I've got to keep pinching myself to make sure it's not a dream. But I'll be glued to the TV on Monday morning. I suppose it'll become a reality then."

Bryan said Brendon had the drive to go to the top from the moment he started karting at six.

"He was competitive from the first time we put him in the kart, and that never stopped. I had trouble keeping up with his progress... [He] just kept on going forward all the time."

It has been estimated it cost $12 million to bring a budding F1 driver through the classes. But Bryan said, "I haven't got that sort of money to put in".

The #2 Porsche LMP1 919 Hybrid drivers Brendon Hartley (centre) and Earl Bamber of New Zealand. Photo / AP
The #2 Porsche LMP1 919 Hybrid drivers Brendon Hartley (centre) and Earl Bamber of New Zealand. Photo / AP

His son's rise through the karting ranks till 12, and onto race cars in his early teens was built on his skill and determination and their family-based team's "hard work and lots of people that have helped us out along the way". "Then [he got] recognised by Red Bull - which gave him the break."

Talent-spotted after proving himself in NZ Formula Ford and the Toyota Racing Series, he moved to Europe at 16, landing a junior contract with Red Bull.

Bryan said he was naturally nervous about his son going to live on the other side of the world. "That was our little boy leaving... It was very, very challenging for him."

But he went on to win the Eurocup Formula Renault 2.0 crown the following year.

Hartley continued to work his way up the motor racing ranks and in June this year he won the famous Le Mans race in a Porsche team including his childhood friend Earl Bamber, who he used to race against on the kart track as youngsters.

Racing is in the blood. Brother Nelson, 31 - named after Brazil's F1 legend Nelson Piquet, is a sprint car champ and placed 2nd at the 2006 NZ Formula Ford Championship. Mum Lynda was a Manawatu Car Club champion.

The family business Hartley Engines and Motorsport, in Palmerston North, makes high performance engines for classic cars, jet boats, drift cars and speedway.

Bryan work commitments and not wanting to add to his son's packed schedule, meant he wasn't joining him in Austin. "He knows we're supporting him here."

The family, plus a crowd of supporters, will be watching the race on the big screen at Palmerston North's Rose & Crown Olde English Pub.

Bryan said he will be on the edge of his seat. "Providing he gets through the first corner okay, it'll be still a nerve wracking time the rest of the time."

At the racetrack will be Hartley's fiancée Sarah Wilson. The couple have been together since their mid-teens, and their wedding is set for January.

Hartley and Wilson are keen cyclists. He finished 27th in the demanding 85km Huka Challenge in Taupo last year. She did well in a 60km women's race.

"All those motor racing drivers at the top end, they're super athletes," Bryan said. "They're not just fit, they're more than fit."

His son's rising star at the top of the sport would not change him, Bryan said. "He's very down to earth."

"He's a very intelligent, enthusiastic person. He's a very loving boy. He's just a very good all round person."