The rumour mill has been bubbling away for a few weeks now about Brendon Hartley’s future with Toro Rosso in Formula 1 after a difficult start to the season.

But on Wednesday, reports emerged claiming the team had made an approach to McLaren regarding Lando Norris as a potential mid-season replacement, lighting the fire under Hartley.

One point from the opening six races of the season may be a disappointing return, but is it fair for the team to already be considering Hartley’s future?

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Hartley’s arrival into F1 towards the end of last season stands out as one of the most remarkable routes into the sport in recent memory. Seven years after being ditched from Red Bull’s junior programme, Hartley made a surprise return to the fold in single-seaters after rising to the very top of the sports car racing world with Porsche. Two Le Mans wins and two FIA World Endurance Championship crowns proved he is no slouch, prompting Toro Rosso to take a chance on bringing him into F1. His late-season appearances were something of a write-off given Toro Rosso’s form, with the real work starting in 2018 alongside Pierre Gasly.

Gasly has been the star for Toro Rosso so far this season. His charge to P4 in Bahrain was remarkable, matching the second-best result in the team’s history, beaten only by Sebastian Vettel’s victory at Monza in 2008. He was also on-song in Monaco as he charged to seventh with a seamless drive, giving him a haul of 18 points from the opening six races.

By comparison, Hartley has just one point to his name - and it was a lucky point at that, only grabbed through the chaos that reigned in the closing stages in Baku. Even after the race, the New Zealander remained demure, instead focusing on the fact that Toro Rosso simply didn’t have the speed to compete for points on merit.

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And in truth, that has been true for much of the season so far. The only races where points were truly on the cards for Toro Rosso were Bahrain and Monaco. On both occasions, Gasly seized the opportunity; Hartley did not. A formation lap mix-up plus an early clash with Sergio Perez in Bahrain hurt his chances, leaving his car with damage through the race. He’d also hit a bird during qualifying, destroying the front wing on his car.

In Monaco, Hartley was an excellent P7 in FP3, only for traffic and yellow flags in Q1 to leave him down the grid in 16th. Yet he was able to rise towards the points before his race was ended by a crash resulting from Charles Leclerc’s brake failure.

Head-to-head with Gasly, Hartley trails 4-2 in qualifying and is 3-1 down in races both drivers have been classified. It’s not the best picture, but it’s hardly a thrashing.

But there have been a number of incidents that undoubtedly add to fuel to the fire under Hartley, the most damning of which came in Spain. A costly error in FP3 saw Hartley crash into the barrier at Turn 9 at high speed, wrecking his car and the power unit. He could take no part in qualifying, putting his weekend on ice, with the damage to his power unit also pushing him closer to penalties. Honda’s updated power unit in Canada this weekend could trigger the first of those. The confusion on the formation lap in Bahrain could also be put down to a bit of inexperience, as could the clash with Gasly in China and the near-miss with his teammate during qualifying in Baku that nearly resulted in an almighty accident.

The little things haven’t quite been adding up for Hartley. But it would be too much of a knee-jerk decision for Toro Rosso to call it a day so soon. All he needs is a couple of clean weekends to bounce back and get on top of his struggles, and it could all turn around.

Another factor for Toro Rosso in this is the lack of realistic replacements for Hartley. Gone are the days when there was a queue of Red Bull juniors waiting to make the move up to F1, with the programme looking at more grassroots talent in recent times. The most prominent Red Bull-affiliated drivers currently are Dan Ticktum, who is racing in Formula 3, and the Honda-backed Nirei Fukuzumi. Neither of them have the required Super Licence points to even be a consideration, forcing Red Bull to look outside of its junior programme.

Were it to follow the same ilk of Hartley’s initial signing with a left-field choice that is still linked to Red Bull, then Formula E champion and Toyota LMP1 Sebastien Buemi could be a consideration. Buemi was coy last year when asked if he came close to the Toro Rosso seat, hinting things could have perhaps played out differently. But the presence of Honda, a rival Japanese manufacturer, would make a move in unlikely, particularly given the struggles Toyota had to even get Fernando Alonso a test last November when McLaren was still powered by Honda.

The need to look outside of the Red Bull tent prompted the approach for Norris, but putting a leading junior in a rival team’s programme would not have sat comfortably with McLaren. The same would be true for Mercedes with Pascal Wehrlein or Ferrari with Antonio Giovinazzi, both of whom are perhaps the most qualified drivers to step in if required.

So where else do you look? To IndyCar? For Formula E? But who would be interested in risking things on a shot at F1, much as Hartley did, turning down an IndyCar seat with Chip Ganassi Racing, only to risk being spat out in a handful of races?

The best bet for Toro Rosso right now would be to give Hartley some more time. If we get to the summer break and we’re still having the same conversations, and the team’s constructors’ championship standing is clearly being harmed by a lack of points, then that may be the right time to make a switch.

But without a huge number of viable alternatives at present, the team needs to try and let the shoots of progress Hartley has shown through the first six races of the year fully bloom.

 

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