Nico Hulkenberg’s Route to F1

Route to F1

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“I can say that the boy has an unbelievable talent. So much about him already reminds me of Michael Schumacher.” Willi Weber’s 2007 endorsement of Nico Hulkenberg, who he was managing at the time, says everything you need to know about one of Germany’s brightest young talents.

The country which already has one multiple champion in Sebastian Vettel and current points leader Nico Rosberg could one day have another in the shape of Nico Hulkenberg. His junior career demonstrated he has the ability to continue the current domination of Formula One by German drivers.

Hulkenberg was born in August 1987, and first got behind the wheel of a kart ten years later. The German karting scene enjoyed a boom period in the late nineties thanks to the many youngsters inspired by the success of Schumacher.

Despite the abundance of competitors, Hulkenberg made his mark by winning the German Junior Karting Championship in 2002, aged 15. the following year he clinched the German karting Championship, a category he again excelled in in 2004 before moving into single-seater racing.

Vettel had dominated Germany’s Formula BMW championship in 2004, but the next year Hulkenberg distinguished himself by winning the title at his first attempt – despite a controversial end to the season.

Driving for the Josef Kaufmann team, a well-respected organisation that had previously helped a young Gerhard Berger on the road to F1, Hulkenberg was immediately on the pace. He won eight rounds outright and was top rookie in all bar four of that year’s races.

One of the few races where he failed to score points was at the Norising, where in race one he knocked team mate Nick de Bruijn into a spin on lap two:

The pair shared the front row for the second race, but it was Hulkenberg who won from pole, claiming his seventh win of the year.

The title was decided in controversial fashion. Sebastien Buemi was declared champion after the final double-header event at Hockenheim, but under protest as Hulkenberg had been given a 30-second penalty for illegally passing Buemi during a Safety Car restart.

However on appeal a 60-second penalty was imposed on Buemi, whom it was ruled had braked hard before the restart, causing Hulkenberg to pass him. Losing the win cost Buemi the championship to his rival. “In the end justice won out,” said Hulkenberg. “Buemi’s manoeuvre endangered all the cars behind him. Now I can enjoy my title.”

More controversy soon followed, however, at BMW’s World Final event. Held for the first time at the Bahrain International Circuit and featuring Formula BMW drivers from around the world, this time it was Hulkenberg who won on the road but was penalised for a Safety Car infringement. He therefore fell to third behind Buemi and overall winner Marco Holzer – who also earned a coveted F1 test.

A measured step up in 2006 saw the young German move into German F3, rather than the more prestigious European series. It was to be a relatively disappointing year, with Hulkenberg winning just once before a mid-season chassis change dropped him from championship contention and saw him end the year fifth.

His next move was an unusual one. A1 Grand Prix, the ‘World Cup of Motorsport’ for drivers in single-spec chassis, was entering its second season. Hulkenberg was enlisted to drive Germany’s entry for the majority of the 2006-07 championship, and set about rejuvenating his somewhat-battered reputation by dominating A1GP.

Hulkenberg won the first feature race of the year at Zandvoort, but his next race at Brno came to a swift end following this tangle with title rival Jonny Reid of New Zealand:

After that Hulkenberg got into his stride, and at Sepang romped to a dominant 42-second win during a rain storm. By the end of the year he’d racked up nine victories and almost single-handedly took Germany to the crown. Michael Schumacher appeared in person to hand the 19-year-old his title.

Hulkenberg’s A1 Grand Prix success did not deflect him from an otherwise conventional path towards F1. For 2007 he moved up to the F3 Euro Series and took his first win at the Norisring in fine style having started 18th. It made up for his disappointment in the other of that weekend’s races when he spun off while battling Romain Grosjean:

Two further wins followed for Hulkenberg later that year, notably at Zandvoort where he again distinguished himself in very wet conditions. He ended the year third in the championship, behind Grosjean and Buemi and in front of another future F1 driver, Kamui Kobayashi.

Grosjean had become the fourth driver in a row to win the title for ASM, following the likes of Lewis Hamilton, Paul di Resta and Jamie Green. Hulkenberg extended the run in 2008, after the team was rebranded as ART.

He dominated the season, winning seven of the season’s ten feature races and claiming 76 of his eventual 85 points in the Saturday races. It helped matters that a stewards’ decision to strip him of victory in Zandvoort, where his car was found to be underweight, was overturned on appeal.

The 21-year-old claimed the title at Le Mans during the penultimate race weekend of the year. After another win at the final round in Hockenheim he had almost twice the points of second-placed Edoardo Mortara:

By now Hulkenberg was also dovetailing his F3 programme with a new role as a Williams F1 test driver. He made his next step up the ladder with ART and into another now-defunct winter series – GP2 Asia.

Although he contested just four of the eleven rounds, one win and three other top-four placings saw Hulkenberg take 6th in the championship, sandwiched by fellow future F1 drivers Vitaly Petrov and Sergio Perez, both of which had entered every race. He also got the chance to renew his rivalry with Kobayashi in Bahrain:

Williams demonstrated their faith in Hulkenberg by choosing him to conduct the shakedown test of their new FW30 chassis at the beginning of 2009. But his main occupation that year was the main GP2 championship with ART.

Hulkenberg had a shaky start to the season with a no-score at the opening race weekend in Spain. Grosjean and Petrov to open up a points gap by the time the field arrived at the Nurburgring for the halfway point of the championship.

But when he reached home ground Hulkenberg was revitalised, winning both races. The second of these, from eighth on the grid on a damp track, was another showcase for his superb touch in low grip conditions:

Hulkenberg added a third consecutive victory in the first race at the Hungaroring a week later. He added another win at Valencia, and a further boost to his title hopes came when Grosjean left the series to make an early entry into F1 with Renault.

That meant Hulkenberg arrived at the penultimate race weekend at Monza poised to add the GP2 championship to his increasingly impressive CV. Third place duly sealed the title, and as well as being the first rookie champion since Hamilton he also made history by becoming the first driver to clinch the title before the final race weekend of the season.

Williams now had every reason to consider promoting him for 2010. During the winter they parted ways with engine supplier Toyota, meaning a new driver could be found to take the place of Kazuki Nakajima, who owed his place in the team to their backing.

Rubens Barrichello was already confirmed in place of the departing Nico Rosberg, leaving the door open for Hulkenberg to make the step up to the race team. Although his Williams association ultimately only lasted on season, it was the break that gave him the chance he had craved to show his skills in Formula One.

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Images © BMW, A1 Grand Prix, GP2/LAT, Williams/LAT

18 comments on “Nico Hulkenberg’s Route to F1”

  1. He has always been loved by a large part of the crowd. Many always believed he was a true natural talent. I am one of those and fear for the day this man will have to leave F1 because no winning team wants him because of ‘reasons’.

    1. I’m afraid currently top teams have many rea$on$ to avoid him, sadly.

      1. WilliamB (@william-brierty)
        8th August 2014, 14:54

        @carlitox – So why then did Ferrari hire “Kerching!-Kimi” over Nico?

        1. It seems to have been an attempt to remind Alonso he doesn’t call the shots and won’t get his own lapdog as a teammate all the time. Seems to have backfired somewhat.

          1. Yes, like that time when Alonso was in Ferrari, and he chose Massa to be his teammate.

        2. They have a policy about young drivers. Not that I agree with it, in fact to me it’s just another example of missed opportunities. And not just about the Hulk.
          I reckon they went with Kimi thinking “Hey, we got two damn champions, we’re like the Barcelona of F1! Nothing will stop us now!” Guess they forgot about the car. ;)

  2. I am pretty sure I’m not the only one who likes to cheer for the underdogs of a particular sport. I have often found myself cheering for drivers like Johnny Herbert or Timo Glock. Guys, who fight on despite the machinery and sometimes due to part luck part skill manage to beat some of the big guys. It seems to me that Hulk has the role of the popular underdog in the current field and gets a lot of credit for his results because they are not achieved with a top car. I certainly enjoy watching him and enjoy his high finishes. I wonder how (if) his popularity will change if he ever gets that top drive he seems to deserve. Too bad Ferrari didn’t take a chance last year instead of Kimi.

  3. WilliamB (@william-brierty)
    8th August 2014, 13:55

    What a megastar this guy is, and could be. I remember watching an A1GP race trackside at Brands in 2007 and and saying “There is F1’s new Schumi” to my friend, and his performances in F1 so far certainly suggest that given the right car he could happily win races and championships. And yet, not once, not twice but three times big teams have negated to sign Nico. With McLaren in 2012 it was little more than misjudgment on McLaren’s part, and then last year when they wanted to replace Checo they couldn’t really pick Nico as it would paint a big “WE GOT THE WRONG MAN” banner on their back.

    Ferrari’s decision to take Raikkonen over Hulkenberg is much more worrying though. Obviously not choosing the younger, cheaper, probably faster and more benign Nico was obviously the wrong decision, but the rationale behind not signing Nico is puzzling. Too tall? Hasn’t stopped him, or the equally tall Button for that matter, from being competitive this year. Too inexperienced? If Ferrari are interested in Bianchi to replace Kimi, that argument doesn’t hold water. To much of a handful behind the scenes? Possible, he was allegedly stamping his feet at Sauber in the first half of 2013, but I’d imagine Vettel and Alonso aren’t Cary Grant when the car is poor, and teams are still interested in them. In essence, it is has merely been a depressing series of miscalculations that have prevented Nico climbing further up the grid, with Ferrari wanting to be a WCC points vacuum with Alonso and Raikkonen, and McLaren misinterpreting Perez’s 2012 podiums in what was actually a jolly excellent Sauber car. Have faith, talent will out, Nico will get his break, probably at Ferrari, and may in fact be champion after all…

    1. Martin Brundle has said often that Alonso vetoed Hulkenberg as a potential teammate. I don’t blame him if that’s the case!

      1. WilliamB (@william-brierty)
        8th August 2014, 15:58

        I’m sure this time last year Fernando would have chosen the young Hulkenberg, a driver far more likely to play #2, than the often divisive Kimi. If anything the move to hire Raikkonen was an Alonso snub from Montezemelo, a statement that he is not top dog at Ferrari. Great plan, Luca…

    2. @william-brierty I hope Hulkenberg can get in to a Ferrari or top car quicker than Rubens did – Irvine beat him there after one season (1995) where he outpaced him by a tenth on average – after Rubens beat him in the seasons before that (including the Spa 1994 pole position in wet conditions..). Irvine also kickbacked £1m to Ferrari to sweeten the deal – and Perez managed to give McLaren $5m reasons to take him on board instead.

      We can look back and say that McLaren did what was best for them – their car left them where they were in the WCC, so sponsor money coming in helps reduce that deficit of prize money lost. Force India then took the initiative, gaining Perez’s increased sponsorship, which then paid Hulk’s unpaid 2012 salary, the technology debt to McLaren instead of running Magnussen to cancel this, technology from Mercedes, and some left to help develop the car early in the season……

      For Perez, 2012 tyres fell into his sweet spot of smoothness and managing the tyres. Sauber also produced a great car, if inconsistent in the hands of both drivers, Williams too. Perhaps Button was ‘too smooth’, or ‘out-smoothed’ in getting lost with setup in mid-2012, who knows.

  4. That wet GP2 sprint race is a pleasure to watch!

    Thanks for this article @anthonyfrench :)

  5. Next year there are two McLaren seats up for grabs, and I think one at Ferrari too.

    I think at Ferrari, Kimi and Ferrari’s management will decide to call it a day unless there is a dramatic improvement in the second half of the season. Although, if Ferrari don’t put Bianchi in the seat, it will start to feel a bit strange that him in their programme for so long. Would be interesting to see Hulkenberg alongside Alonso, though.

    As for McLaren, I suspect Button’s contract will not be renewed (as a result of getting a fat 16M contract last time to put him level with Hamilton’s pay level), and Magnussen staying will depend on him making true on the promise he has shown occasionally in the first half of the season. Also, next year’s cars will be 10 kg heavier, so Nico’s weight should not be a problem anymore. Of course, McLaren is hardly a safe bet for a good car these days, but they still have better potential than Force India.

    1. I doubt there will be two seats at Mclaren. They pretty much sacrificed Perez to keep Magnussen away from the other teams (such as Ferrari and Red Bull, I think; to some extent maybe Mercedes), and replacing him would be a dumb decision, they even gave Kov two seasons. Button on the other hand… well, he can hold his ground against Magnussen more often than not, but that wont stay true for a very long time.

  6. I like Nico. He seems like a good guy. But Formula 1 in general is in a sad state of affairs.

    Sure we can follow the junior categories, looking at his or anyone’s road to F1. But the most crucial part of the road to F1 is a birth right or money. No other professional sport has such a shallow talent pool from which to select its stars. Given the revenue this sport has generated over the years it is a disgrace that there is not a genuine talent based road map to the top.

    1. @dimsim With the exception of Robin Frijns, I think most F1 talents are now promptly being signed up for ‘driver academies’.. Max Verstappen was just signed up by Mercedes. Ferrari have just added a famous Chinese Rotax karter…

  7. And still we don’t have an all German podium of Vettel Rosberg and Hulkenberg

    1. This is bound to happen soon @nimba !

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