2012 F1 Driver Rankings #5: Nico Hulkenberg

2012 F1 season review

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In a year characterised by an extremely close field, challenging tyre compounds and several hectic races, Nico Hulkenberg had a quietly impressive season.

There were many drivers who showed occasional flashes of great promise in 2012. But Hulkenberg, returning to racing from a year on the sidelines, consistently delivered and improved race by race in one of the midfield’s less competitive cars.

He played himself in over the first few weekends. Australia was a write-off as first-corner contact ended his race. In the wet Malaysian Grand Prix he did not show the same form he had for Williams in the soaked qualifying session at the same track two years ago.

Beat team mate in qualifying10/19
Beat team mate in race10/17
Races finished18/20
Laps spent ahead of team mate604/1020

But once the European season began it was clear he’d shaken off the cobwebs. He resisted Mark Webber for tenth in Spain. He followed that up with fifth in despite a faulty KERS, Webber and Michael Schumacher passing him on the penultimate lap.

His best qualifying performance of the year came in the rain-hit session at his home Grand Prix. Hulkenberg planted the car fourth on the grid, but in the dry race his Force India was overcome by quicker rivals.

Both Force India drivers performed well in 2012. The VJM05 was only quicker than the Williams FW34 in five of the 20 races, yet they ended the season ahead in the standings.

As the second half of the season began Hulkenberg increasingly held the upper hand in the team, narrowly out-qualifying and beating Di Resta in Hungary. A career-best fourth followed in the Belgian Grand Prix, aided by the first corner carnage but also an excellent pass on Kimi Raikkonen at the restart, achieved without DRS and despite being on harder tyres.

Italy was a missed opportunity: Di Resta showed what the car was capable of in qualifying but Hulkenberg was sidelined with a fuel pressure problem during Q1 and retired with a brake fault during the race.

Hulkenberg’s ever-improving form was clearest over the final six races in which time he repeatedly out-performed Di Resta and almost scored a shock win in Brazil.

A gearbox penalty left him 15th on the grid in Japan, from where he recovered to seventh. In Korea he pulled off another excellent pass, taking advantage of Romain Grosjean’s delay behind Lewis Hamilton to take the pair of them and split the two Lotuses at the finish.

Eighth in India and the USA, he reached Q3 in Abu Dhabi but was taken out in an incident with his team mate at the start.

The culmination of his late season surge was a dazzling performance in Brazil. As in 2010 he revelled in the track and the slippery conditions, moving up to third early on when Fernando Alonso went off in front of him.

As the rain started he didn’t succumb to the temptation of pitting for intermediate tyres. With slick tyres on a damp track he reeled in Jenson Button and passed the McLaren. But his well-earned 45-second advantage over the otherdrivers was eradicated by the safety car.

He led for 30 laps before a half-spin let Lewis Hamilton by. A bid to take the lead back resulted in contact and a drive-through penalty. But fifth place moved up the drivers’ championship at the expense of Kamui Kobayashi – the driver whose place he will take at Sauber next year.

Hulkenberg compared favourably against a similarly-experienced team mate, made few mistakes (Brazil aside) and improved throughout the year. That his consistent form did not always earn the results it deserved was largely down to his machinery. After a year like this it’s clear he deserves a competitive car.

F1 Fanatic readers on Nico Hulkenberg

Here’s what F1 Fanatic readers had to say about Nico Hulkenberg’s performances this year:

Has shown real class and talent in a car that is arguably bottom of the midfield but one (Toro Rosso). Stunning in the wet.

Showed a real explosion in form after he got used to the Pirelli tyres, including a fantastic almost-victory in Brazil, as well as a run of points from Suzuka to the US.

His drive in Korea, fending off Grosjean for 40-odd laps and pouncing on Grosjean and Hamilton slowing each other down, was worthy of Fernando Alonso.

What a great comeback! I loved the guy in 2010, I was so disappointed that he ended up without a seat in 2011.

He had a slow start of the season, but in the Asian rounds he proved that he is a much better driver than Di Resta. His speed and his consistency were really impressive.

He is just behind Perez and ahead of Kobayashi in the standings. Considering that Sauber had a car capable of podiums in a lot of races, that’s a great achievement.

Notes on how the rankings are produced

The F1 Fanatic Driver Rankings are my personal view on how the drivers performed across the entire season. Drivers such as Jerome D’Ambrosio who only competed in a small part of the season are not included.

Each drivers’ performance in all of the race weekends are taken into account and summarised. For more detailed views of how they fared in each weekend refer to the notes produced for each Driver of the Weekend article and the driver form guides.

A selection of F1 Fanatic readers’ views appear alongside the rankings. The full rankings will be published in seven parts, with individual articles for the top five drivers, after which there will be a vote for Driver of the Year.

Over to you

What’s your verdict on Nico Hulkenberg’s season? Have your say in the comments.

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Author information

Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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62 comments on “2012 F1 Driver Rankings #5: Nico Hulkenberg”

  1. he is so much better than Perez…………

    1. Not that easy to judge.

    2. so we can ask at least 3 podiums on 2013 with sauber

      1. Regarding Hulkenburg being more consistent (something I’ve heard all too often). He is 25, Perez is 22. There’s your answer.

        1. He is consistently older than Perez?

          1. It’s an undeniable fact!

          2. Lol.. yeah..it’s true mate … for every 1 year that Perez ages… Hulk also ages by exactly 1 year :P !!!

  2. Really think the top teams have missed a trick on this boy. Difficult to place him alongside Alonso, Vettel, Hamilton, but I’d certainly rate him up there if not above the Buttons, Webbers, Rosbergs of the world. Super Season.

    1. With the move to Sauber, I’m betting he winds up in a Ferrari in 2014

      1. Which is a shame… I see him as more of a McLaren man. Almost the next Hamilton, in my eyes.

  3. Would agree with the Hulk’s assessment. Before the season started I expected Paul and Nico to have the most interesting inter team battle… but I didn’t expect Nico to beat Paul by such a huge margin towards the end of the season.

    I think if Sergio drops the ball at Mclaren.. or some other top team has a an urgent replacement, Im pretty sure the Hulk is on the top of the list now.

    1. although i would prefer kimi to switch to mclaren and end his career =)

    2. I agree, in 2012 Force India had the most interesting team mate battle, 2013? I reckon Williams.

      1. Williams… and I think Mclaren

  4. Good choice – he was thoroughly impressive this season, Williams must be smacking their head at letting go of him, as he has the speed of Maldonado and the consistency of Senna.
    Brazil was also a hugely impressive performance, and hitting Hamilton was very unlucky, but certainly amplified by the conditions. He has come out of this season with his stock higher than when he came in.

    1. he has the speed of Maldonado and the consistency of Senna.

      But no monies :c

      1. After the year he had, it is entirely possible that will change. People like to bet on winners, and NH has shown that he has enough quality to be that winner. His star is rising, and sponsors will want to hitch up to it.

  5. As a Hulkenberg fan it has been a fantastic year watching him grow. :) Thanks for the lovely article, Keith!

  6. What was most impressing was his defensive driving, some of I could remember:
    – Webber in Spain,
    – Senna/Button in Silverstone (eventually he lost out but Williams were miles ahead that day in terms of pace)
    – Massa in Belgium,
    – Willams pair in Austin,
    – Grosjean in Korea and India (specially in later stages Grosjean was on soft and Hulk on hard)
    – Maldonado in Suzuka
    Baring a instance or two, hardly involved in incidents, immensely talented.
    Red Bull 2014, anyone?

    1. If he has solid performance in season ahead, I ‘d bet him for a seat at Ferrari, to replace Massa

      1. If Alonso won’t get the WDC next year, Hulk with take the seat at Ferrari but to replace Alonso instead. Wanna bet?

    2. @vickyy – Sadly I don’t see him driving a Red Bull but he could very possibly be taking Felipe Massa’s seat sooner rather than later – after all Sauber is to Ferrari like Toro Rosso is to Red Bull! I persoanlly would really like to see Felix Da Costa in a Red Bull but for the meantime that is only a hope.

      1. after all Sauber is to Ferrari like Toro Rosso is to Red Bull!

        I disagree ,this is completely false the Torro Rosso is a the Red Bull junior team owned by the same company Red Bull who has a total control of the team while Sauber is independent from Ferrari even if it has a very good partnership wit Ferrari it doesn’t mean that Ferrari have any influence on Sauber’s strategic decisions

        Sadly I don’t see him driving a Red Bull but he could very possibly be taking Felipe Massa’s seat sooner rather than later

        remember Sergio Perez

  7. Future WDC. For sure.

    1. Unfortunately we tend to see a lot more “Future WDC’s” than we see actual WDCs. I think ‘potential’ WDC would be more accurate.

  8. I completely agree with this decision. As an up-and-coming racing driver, the important thing is to improve as the season goes on and not fade into the distance. Whole season stamina is an important asset, and that is exactly what the Hulk has shown as opposed to his more decorated teammate. Many people might be against him signing for Sauber, but for the first time he’ll get a chance to lead a team. And with the form Guti showed in GP2 this year, 2013 could really be the year that this talented, young German stands out. I just hope he treads carefully from thereon and think a couple of times about a switch to the so-called ‘big’ teams, some of which may coerce him to play bridesmaid. The Hulk can be a WC, and I believe Mac would have done a better job by taking him instead of a certain German. That’s life though, and not much can be dwelt on that.

  9. Massa is going to need a massive drive next year to keep him out of that Ferrari.

  10. Good article. While all the attention was on Grosjean and Pastor, the hulk got on with what a racing driver is supposed to do: Race.

    In the Williams or the lotus, I think he’d have produced much better results than either of them.

  11. WDC material and the guy McLaren should’ve hired for next year.

    1. Yes McLaren could’ve taken him in, but remember they took the decision around Singapore, by that time he was behind Paul and he had yet to prove his worth, Pérez was the safest option believe it or not.

      1. I think people tend to have short memories and that is a large part of why Hulkenberg is highly rated at the moment. If the race outcomes had been in reverse order in 2012 then Hulkenberg’s purple patch would stand out less and Perez’s fine results would dominate the discussion.

        At the time Di Resta was mentioned in discussion almost as much as Hulkenberg, yet by the end of the year no-one is doubting that Perez was probably the better pick of those two.

        1. But there IS a difference in being slower at the start of the year when you are back into a racing seat after a year as 3rd driver and losing one’s edge towards the end of the year.

  12. I can’t imagine what he could has done this year if he was behind the wheel of that Williams

  13. Completely agree with Hulk at 5 and with vast majority of lower rankings too. The Hulk is a fantastic driver, a future WDC if there ever was one, but I hope it’s the last sideways move in his career, as there were many cases of huge potential wasted by wrong career moves in the history of F1.

    Also, in the perfect world he would be partnering KOba and not Gutierrez in Sauber, but it’s not a perfect world by any means.

    My ranking (including the top 4, let’s see how they compare to Keith’s would be:

    1) Alonso
    2) Hamilton
    3) Vettel (controversial I know, but I rate 2012 performances by ALO and HAM higher than his)
    4) Kimi
    6) Webber
    7) Button
    8) Perez
    9) Kobayashi
    10) Rosberg
    11) Di Resta
    12) Schumacher
    13) Grosjean
    14) Ricciardo
    15) Heikki
    16) Massa (being good for 5 races is no excuse for being awful in 15)
    17) Glock
    18) Pic
    19) Petrov
    20) Vergne (inexcusable qualifying disaster)
    21) Senna
    22) De la Rosa
    23) Karthikeyan
    24) Maldonado (speed is not everything, doesn’t deserve to be in F1 IMO because he is dangerous, rude, lacks respect and self-consciousness)

  14. I’m sorry Keith, but i’m going to have to call you up on this again – And I think you are being over generous with your choice of words. Yes, i’m being pedantic.

    But his well-earned 45-second advantage over the othe drivers was eradicated by the safety car.

    How is a 45sec lead caused by other drivers pitting twice before you “well earned”? Yes, they stayed out on the tires – but that in itself did not what earned them the lead. I just dont understand why this fact isnt’t taken into consideration whilst objectively discussing the lead Nico and Jenson had.

    A bid to take the lead back resulted in contact

    A bid to take the lead back resulted in him crashing into Lewis Hamilton. Using the word “contact”, though grammatically correct, does not tell the full story and is a slight misrepresentation.

    1. How is a 45sec lead caused by other drivers pitting twice before you “well earned”?

      Because in tricky conditions where the likes of Hamilton and Alonso “chicken” back to the pits, he and Button had the guts to stay out. And it was a gamble that worked out very, very well indeed, only to have that gap slashed by the safety car.

      1. You say they had the guts to stay out, and in another sentence, you call it a “gamble”. In my opinion, they had the guts to gamble, which in itself is a good thing. But my point is the led was not caused by them staying out, it was caused by the others coming in. The two are related, but seperate. No reason why this distinction cannot be made when describing the event.

        1. Its not a gamble to feel the track good enough to be confident of keeping it on track and doing solid laps on slicks in these conditions.

          A gamble would have been coming in for wets in the hope/expectation of worsening rain.

        2. @kbdavies – this is like saying “the driver who wins the race didn’t do it by driving fast, it was caused by everyone else being slow”.

          The two are not “related but separate”, they are the same.

          1. The circumstances that enable a driver to win a race should not be obscured or misrepresented.
            In the statement you made above, if a HRT won the race because everyone else DNF, would it then be correct to say it was as result of their superior pace relative to every one else??

            This is not a complicated argument at all. Wining a race, and the reasons that make you win are NOT the same.

          2. @kbdavies, In that example it would be HRT winning due to better reliability and/or their drivers making less mistakes.

    2. The lead was well earned, but of course Button and Hulkenberg would also have had to come in for new tyres quickly if there hadn’t been a safety car, so their net lead would have been less than 30 seconds; still that would have seen Button and Hulkenberg fight it out for the victory.

      1. It could not have been 30secs if they both stopped twice like the main guys behind them.

    3. As other said before me, their lead was justified, and even with pit stops would have had a sizeable lead.

      As with the ‘crashing’. It was hardly intentional, as you imply. Sure, Hamilton wasn’t at fault, but in conditions when even drivers like Alonso were struggling, then you can hardly lay too much blame on Hulkenberg. It was a bold move that resulted in something unfortunate.

      I’m sure you’re probably the kind of person who thinks that Hamilton destroyed Button every year, and wasn’t at fault for his poor performance in 2011, but don’t discredit Hulkenberg’s racing this year.

      1. even with pit stops would have had a sizeable lead.

        How so? Please take 2 pitstops out of 45secs and tell me what you have left.

        As with the ‘crashing’. It was hardly intentional, as you imply

        Where did i imply it was intentional? I simply said Keith is being over generous with his words by using the word “contact”, which actually implies no one was at fault. Hulk was at fault as the onus lies on him not to crash into whoever he is overtaking. It wasn’t intentional, but it was reckless, giving the conditions at the time.

        in conditions when even drivers like Alonso were struggling, then you can hardly lay too much blame on Hulkenberg

        Erm…other guys had completed overtakes in the same conditions without any crashing. The stewards certainly thought all the blame lay with him.

        1. The bogey time at that track is something like 21 seconds… . 21 seconds from time of enabling the Pit speed limiter to the time of being free to climb back up to racing speed. In consideration of this, he could have done 2 pit stops and still been ahead of the pack by 3 seconds. 3 seconds is a big gap in F1.

          It was remarkable for NH to have a 45 second lead purely because so few of the top drivers were able to drive so well as to match that domination. It is even more impressive that he did it in a Force India chassis, certainly not one of the best.

          The rain is the same for all, as are the tires. NH was able to do more with the conditions and materials than any other. Because of this, the lead was remarkable.

          1. Not to mention that all the others would also have had to do another pitstop too.

      2. What would have happend if Vettel would have been leading last race and Hulk taking him out :).

    4. @kbdavies I think you are taking all the merit from Hulk just because of the 2 stops the other drivers did.
      Hamilton that was the leading driver actually lost little more than 46 seconds on his first 2 pit-stops (http://www.formula1.com/results/season/2012/883/7155/pit_stop_summary.html).
      This explains why he was in front and then before the SC he was 45 seconds (or so) behind.

      Still it needs to be said that Hulk, as Button, managed to stay out in what in not the best tyres and did not loose any time. They did not loose it when others were on intermediate, neither they lost it when other switched back to new slicks.
      And of course they both should take the credit for taking the decision to stay out. You say several times they did not gain anything by staying out, the other drivers lost it by pitting twice. It almost sounds like everybody else made a mistake…
      I think Hulk and Button deserve all the credit for staying out and still be fast enough for those 23 laps that their lead was 45 seconds to the rest of the pack that took the safer decision to pit for intermediates (which meant a 2nd stop for slicks later).
      And Hulk being on a Force India and actually taking 1st place and keeping it for 30 laps not being threatened by Hamilton cannot be discounted as well!

  15. All that said, i do agree with his ranking.

  16. He has had a stunning season and a 5th place here is well deserved I think. McLaren seems to have missed out on a huge opportunity here. I think Hulkenberg has what it takes to fight for a championship sooner rather then later.
    His speed is good, but probably not earth shatteringly so. But his consistency is. Its hard to be consistent in the midfield with so many crash happy drivers around, and the drivers in the midfield that prove consistent seem to be too slow and forgiving. Senna for instance. Good consistency, but not enough speed to make much use of it.
    But Hulkenberg somehow manages to be fast and consistent. And he was that just half way into the season. After a year at the sidelines and just one year at Williams in 2010, to then have that sort of consistency is pretty fantastic.
    And its not the Heidfeld syndrome either. He isn’t fast, consistent but opens the door way too easily. He seems very good at defending, but without getting into trouble, and his double overtake in Korea proved that he has the aggression that is needed as well.
    For a driver in his 2nd season after a year on the sidelines to be that polished. Wow.
    Vettel wasn’t that clean in his 2nd season. And that is probably what worries me.
    Has he all ready hit his peak? He seems too polished for a young hot shot. As if he has too little to work on.
    I hope not, and moving to Sauber to lead a team and sort of start over from scratch actually seems like the best move right now. He will get new input, and new reasons to improve. And I hope he does that. Because trouncing Di Resta once more, could just make him lean back a little too much and end up a like Rosberg. As a driver with great potential, which didn’t really come to much after all.

    1. “Senna for instance. Good consistency, but not enough speed to make much use of it.”

      Senna has speed in races and he can recover the speed in qualifying next year. He is also very good on the wet. In Malaysia he was as fast as Alonso, Hamilton and Perez and he could have done a similar race to the one Hulkenberg did in Brazil if Vettel had not put him out…

  17. Great article. Thanks Keith. Hulk deserves it. F1 deserves him…

  18. Definitely the second biggest surprise of the season for me.The biggest being Raikkonen.
    Such a shame that with all the focus higher up the grid this year, Hulkenburg didn’t really make an impact until Brazil, but he was actually always there… Great season from someone who I’ve been critical of in the past. Hope it continues

  19. Can’t believe this time last year he was yet to be confirmed by Force India and we were fearing he’d leave the sport for good. Glad he got the chance and took it with both hands. For me there’s no doubt he’s the most talented driver on the grid that’s not with a top team.

  20. I have to say GJ to Hulk in this season, he was very very good, future WDC stuff here. And I have to say I was the first to say he’s overrated afters his first season with Williams, and I even didnt want him back for this year. But this is a revelation, this driver got what it takes, hes clean, good defense and got the speed. He’s the best of the rest for this years for sure !!

  21. I’d have to disagree with his placing. I agree with the points made, but if we forget about his performance in Brazil, I dont think we’d be holding him in quite as high regard. Personally I would swap Hulk with Button or Webber.

  22. This are the top 5 according to me.

    5. Hulk
    4. Kimi
    3. Seb
    2. Alo
    1. Ham

    1. That is exactly as it should been based on their respective seasons, and looking at it with a cold eye.

  23. I first saw Hulkenberg racing (only in footage though) in the A1 series, he was doing as stunning a job as Hamilton had done in GP2.
    Then came his year in GP2, and his entry into F1. I must say i was unsure how good he really was from the F1 year at Williams, although his pole in Brazil showed the talent is there.
    I understand he had been good at giving feedback to Williams, so I guess the year being 3rd driver at FI was good for him as well. I am glad that he confirmed his talent this year, especially in the second half of the year there have been more and more occasions for him to shine.

    Not completely sure what to make of his move to Sauber, but given that Ferrari already had wanted to sign him mid season in 2009 (which he did not take), I hope its a bit of the prancing horse giving him on loan to Sauber now to further develop him (and maybe to have an option on him not fall through?) because they decided to keep Massa for another year.
    That might also explain why McLaren never even mentioned Hulkenberg being an option for them. Just imagine, Vettel in a Red Bull fighting Hulk in a Ferrari, call that Schumi having handed over to the next generation!

  24. William Brierty
    13th December 2012, 21:14

    This is why I smashed the keyboard of my computer upon finding out that Williams had dumped him. This is why I was so surprised when he dropped it in Valencia ’11 and was comprehensively beaten by Di Resta in the first half of this season. This is why I was constantly saying, “It’s the car” when Perez scored his podiums. He is, without a doubt, the finest young prospect in motorsport, and has also been quite useful this year. Hulkenberg has concluded that after Vodafone withdrew a large proportion of their sponsorship McLaren are strapped for cash, which is why they’ve opted for a less talented, but heavily backed, driver in Perez. Sorry Sergio and Romain, but Hulkenberg, Frijns and Da Costa are the future of F1, and all world champions in waiting.

  25. That’s a surprising but fair rank for the guy. He has delivered and certainly provided more entertainment than his team mate. I do think a side ways move is good for him, he’s perhaps not ready for the big time yet but I can certainly feel more confident about Sauber providing him with a better platform next year than Force India.

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