But on his form in GP2 Nico Hulkenberg doesn’t need my blessing to make the grade. He’s looking ever more likely to snap up a Williams drive for 2010.
GP2 has excelled as a proving ground for upcoming F1 talent. If anything it has been too successful, and now its ranks are swelled with drivers in their third or fourth seasons, still hoping to grab the attention of F1 bosses.
Last year’s champion was Giorgio Pantano who amassed over 100 starts on this sub-F1 tier (including F3000) and few were surprised when he failed to land an F1 drive.
But this year things are looking very different. Williams test driver Nico Hulkenberg has taken over the championship lead in his first GP2 season and is showing the kind of form last seen when another rookie – Lewis Hamilton – won the title three years ago.
Hulkenberg has a strong CV having won the 2006-2007 A1 Grand Prix championship for Germany. He followed that up with an emphatic victory in the Formula Three Euroseries last year.
In GP2 he has the benefit of driving for top team ART. But this is a championship where all drivers have identical cars, and ART hasn’t won the title since Hamilton’s days.
Hulkenberg impressed with a brief appearance for the team in the GP2 Asia series last winter. He finished sixth overall in the championship despite only starting four of the 11 rounds, and set pole position in both his qualifying sessions. He won his third race at Qatar, a masterful drive in which he amassed a 45 second lead before his final pit stop on a day when low grip conditions flummoxed his rivals.
He had a rough start to the main series in Barcelona, being taken out of one race by a rival. But he’s only failed to score points on one occasions since then, and now leads the championship by 12 points from Romain Grosjean. With Grosjean expected to take Nelson Piquet Jnr’s place at Renault, Hulkenberg’s title bid is looking ever more promising.
His achievement is all the more impressive when you consider the amount of experience his rivals have, including team mate Pastor Maldonado:
|Position||Name||Points||Career GP2 starts|
|4||Lucas di Grassi||40||66|
Hulkenberg credits his recent successes – including three consecutive wins, two at Hockenheim and one at the Hungaroring – to a breakthrough on car setup which has allowed him to get more from his tyres.
He has been just as impressive on-track, largely steering clear of the inevitable clashes and penalties that go with the territory (Grosjean should take note).
Hulkenberg’s GP2 form is just one reason why he looks increasingly likely to bag a place on the F1 grid sometime soon. He’s managed by Willi Weber, who masterminded the careers of the Schumacher brothers.
And he’s already got a foot in the door with Williams. Testing mileage is hard to come by these days and Hulkenberg is one of few drivers other than active F1 racers to have sampled a 2009-spec.
He drove the Williams FW31 before regular drivers Nico Rosberg and Kazuki Nakajima did. Both of them have been tipped to leave the team at the end of 2009 – Rosberg potentially heading to McLaren and Nakajima not having done an awful lot to merit a third season – which could leave a vacancy for Hulkenberg:
He seems to be unstoppable – he’s in our plans for the long-term future.
Frank Williams’ ‘long-term’ remark seems to suggest a debut next year might not be in the works just yet. But what would be the value in holding off Hulkenberg’s debut for another year? Particularly with testing opportunities for third drivers so limited at the moment.
Lewis Hamilton’s contract with McLaren meant his F1 debut in 2007 was assured by his victory in the 2006 GP2 championship. Does Weber have a similar arrangement in place for Hulkenberg at Williams?
With Michael Schumacher making his return, F1 will have six German drivers on the grid at Valencia. Don’t bet against Hulkenberg being the next one.
Do you think Nico Hulkenberg is ready for F1? Have your say in the comments.
More on Nico Hulkenberg
- Nico Hulkenberg biography
- Nico Hulkenberg (Meet the rookies)
- Hulkenberg first to drive Williams FW31
- Who will get the six new seats in 2010?
- 2010 F1 drivers and teams