On paper, Nico Hulkenburg has accomplished so much in the world of motorsport. He’s won the A1GP, Formula 3 Euroseries, and GP2 titles, driven for one of the most famous and successful F1 teams in Williams, secured an F1 pole position and, the latest addition to his impressive CV, won the Le Mans 24 hours at his first attempt. However, you get that feeling that he’s got so much more to offer, as though there’s still further unfulfilled potential in the man. At 27, whilst not old by any means, you get the feeling that time is running out if he’s to become an F1 megastar in the way we see Fernando Alonso or Sebastian Vettel. He has the talent, there’s no doubt about that; his racing credentials and the flashes of on track brilliance he’s shown have all but proven it, but will the circumstances fall in his favour? Securing a top line F1 drive is a lot to do with luck, timing, as well as talent. Where can he go from his current situation? I’ll try and work it out.
To back up a bit, to truly understand the quality of the driver in question, it’s required to know about his racing history outside of F1. He came to prominence in the 2006/07 A1GP (the now defunct “world cup of motorsports”) season, dominating to win the title for Germany almost single handedly against a field that included household names such as Sebastien Buemi, Sergio Perez, Narain Karthikeyan and Ryan Briscoe, among others. In 2007 he came third in the Formula 3 Euroseries, behind champion Romain Grosjean and runner up Sebastien Buemi, as well as securing victory in the Masters of F3 race at Zolder. He followed up this strong performance by remaining in the series in 2008, moving to the crack outfit ART Grand Prix and taking 7 victories and the title in a field that contained Jules Bianchi, Mercedes tester Sam Bird and current DTM drivers Edoardo Mortara and Christian Vietoris. By this point Williams were already considering him to replace Kazuki Nakajima for a race seat, although he remained their test driver in 2009, which he combined with completing a full GP2 season, again with ART. He battled for the points lead in the early part of the season with Grosjean, who removed himself from the title battle by moving up to F1 mid season to replace Nelson Piquet Jr. at Renault. Hulkenburg won five races and the title at his first attempt, winning by 25 points in an extremely strong field that featured no fewer than 8 drivers who would later go on to drive in F1 (Petrov, di Grassi, Grosjean, Maldonado, d’Ambrosio, Perez, Kobayashi, Chandhok). This result confirmed to the world, what those in the know had been aware of for quite some time; Hulkenburg had real talent, and it was time for him to show that in Formula 1.
2010 was a very mixed one for Hulkenburg. Saddled with an experienced team mate in Rubens Barichello and a very inconsistent Williams car, it was difficult for the German to impress, and he finished the season in 14th place in the standings. There were sporadic moments of magic throughout the season, such as his 5th place in qualifying in Malaysia and his 6th place finish at Hungary. But his undisputed high point was the Brazilian GP, where he got to grips with the changeable track conditions better than anybody, securing an incredible pole position on a drying track. To underline his dominance, he set two seperate laps that would have been good for pole, and ended qualifying over a second quicker than nearest man Sebastian Vettel. His car couldn’t maintain the standards during the race, however, and he fell to 7th. It was announced after Abu Dhabi that he was not to keep his drive, and spent 2011 as Force India’s 3rd driver. 2012 was far better; with a decent enough car underneath him, he made massive strides, scoring 63 points to come 11th in the standings. Brazil was a highlight again, where he led for 29 laps and almost certainly would have won had he not dropped the back end of the car under braking at Turn 1, sliding into Hamilton and taking the McLaren driver out of the race. He recovered from the spin to finish 5th. A move to Sauber in 2013 brought a 10th place in the standings, although the car never really allowed him to show his potential, whilst a 2014 move back to Force India also brought a car that never really had the pace to do much, although he thoroughly outperformed team mate Sergio Perez.
For all his various achievements in motorsport, arguably his finest came in June this year, and it’s one that has him firmly back in the spotlight. In his Le Mans debut, he won the 24 hour race with the team of Earl Bamber and Nick Tandy. Suddenly, the media wanted to know about him again. Will he go back to sportscars? Will the F1 team bosses see him in a new light? What does this mean for his future career options? All questions thrown at him recently, and in his usual, friendly manner, he’s answered these frankly impossible to answer questions as best he can. But this Le Mans win has reinforced the idea that Nico is a top talent, nobody in the F1 paddock can now be unaware of that. But is there an opening in the upper echelon of F1 drives any time soon?
Mercedes’ line up looks locked down for quite a few seasons to come. Neither Hamilton or Rosberg will surely want to leave, barring an improbable loss of form for Mercedes, and both drivers are performing well enough for the management to not be looking for new talent any time soon. Red Bull Racing seems an extremely unlikely option. Not to mention the fact that they currently have two supremely talented drivers in race winner Daniel Ricciardo and Daniil Kvyat, there’s also Carlos Sainz Jr. and champion in the making Max Verstappen waiting in the wings at Toro Rosso should their current drivers slip up, plus last seasons’ Renault World Series runner up Pierre Gasly in their junior line up. McLaren seems like a slightly more viable option, with Alonso and Jenson Button approaching the end of their careers. They should both be gone from the team inside 3 years. Although McLaren also have Kevin Magnussen and GP2 champion in waiting Stoffel Vandoorne as part of their junior line up, it’s not inconceivable they could choose Hulkenburg over those two, as they’re not as committed to their junior programme as Red Bull. Ferrari seems to be the most logical option as a top team who would sign Hulkenburg, with Raikkonen’s potential retirement at the end of the season leaving open a seat for 2016. Nobody in the current field, except maybe Valtteri Bottas, is quite ready for a Ferrari drive other than Hulkenburg, and it seems unlikely they’d promote either of their test drivers (Esteban Guttierez and Jean Eric Vergne) to partner Vettel in a race seat. It looks like a straight fight between Nico and Valtteri for the vacant Ferrari seat, and with Williams ever improving, Bottas seems perfectly content to stick with them at the moment. It seems like Ferrari is Hulkenburg’s best hope to find real success, championship challenging success, in F1.
I really do hope that Nico gets himself a top drive in F1. He deserves it, he’s proven that he certainly could challenge at the elite level of the sport if he was given the right equipment. He’s been very unlucky in the cars he’s been given so far in F1, and I’m confident that he one day will win at least races, maybe even a championship. If he doesn’t, it’ll be the most tragic unfulfilled potential since Robert Kubica. Thanks for reading - JS
For those concerned about a lack of racing during the F1 summer break…
4th & 5th August - British Formula 3 @ Snetterton 5th August - Indy 200 @ Mid-Ohio 5th August - World Superbikes @ Silverstone 18th & 19th August - Formula 3 Euroseries @ Nürburgring 19th August - MotoGP @ Indianapolis 19th August - DTM @ Nürburgring 25th & 26th August - Formula 3 Euroseries @ Circuit Park Zandvoort 25th & 26th August - World Series by Renault @ Silverstone 26th August - MotoGP @ Brno 26th August - IndyCar @ Sonoma 26th August - World Superbikes @ Moscow Raceway 26th August - DTM @ Circuit Park Zandvoort