Nico Hulkenberg took it on the chin when it was pointed out to him, in the build-up to the Singapore Grand Prix, that he was set to surpass Adrian Sutil’s unwanted record for most career starts without a podium.
“I’ve had to wait a long time and work really hard to get to this point to finally get this title off of Adrian and be the recorder holder, said the Renault driver, tongue firmly in cheek. “The Sutil era will be finished this weekend and the Hulkenberg era will start.”
Hulkenberg arrived in F1 eight seasons ago having scooped the GP2 title at his first attempt. But until this year he has been consistently overlooked by manufacturer teams. He has come agonisingly close to rostrum finishes on several occasions in that time.
Last weekend’s race was another near-miss, as Hulkenberg ran third early in the race before eventually retiring with a power unit problem.
With 129 grands prix to his name without a podium finish has Hulkenberg just been unlucky, or did he simply fail to capitalise on the chances he had? These seven times he came close to a podium finish give some examples of how things have gone wrong for him.
2012 Belgian Grand Prix
The infamous first-corner shunt triggered by Romain Grosjean allowed Hulkenberg to rise from 11th on the grid to hold third place behind Kimi Raikkonen. Once the first corner mess had been cleared away and the Safety Car came in, he swiftly picked off the Lotus to take second.
However Lotus responded by bringing Raikkonen in early for his first pit stop, which got him ahead of Hulkenberg’s Force India. Both were also jumped by Sebastian Vettel’s much quicker Red Bull, which meant Hulkenberg had to settle for fourth place. Nonetheless this was his best finish to date in only his second full season of Formula One.
2012 Brazilian Grand Prix
Despite a promising year at Force India, Hulkenberg switched to Sauber for 2013. It ultimately proved a mis-step in his career and he returned to Force India after just one season away.
He signed off from his first stint at the Silverstone team with a drive which might have ended with him being on the top step of the podium. At the same Interlagos circuit where he’d taken a stunning pole position for Williams two years earlier, and in similarly damp conditions, Hulkenberg fought a tooth-and-nail battle with the McLaren drivers for the lead of the race.
As intermittent showers vexed the drivers, Hulkenberg took the lead from Jenson Button on lap 18 and was still there 30 laps later. Then Lewis Hamilton demoted Hulkenberg to second, but their fight wasn’t over.
As the pair worked their way through traffic Hulkenberg dived for the inside at turn one but the VJM05’s rear twitched and he ran wide. He tangled with Hamilton, ending the Mclaren driver’s race, while Hulkenberg collected a penalty.
Nonetheless he went on to finish fifth. “We had a great chance to finish on the podium today, but it slipped away,” he admitted afterwards.
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2014 Bahrain Grand Prix
Hulkenberg’s Sauber sojourn included some fine drives but no realistic podium shots. That changed with his return to Force India and Mercedes power as the V6 hybrid turbo era began.
While the factory Mercedes drivers waged a frantic battle for supremacy in Bahrain, Hulkenberg and Force India team mate Sergio Perez disputed the final podium spot. However it was Perez who prevailed.
“I had to battle from the moment the Safety Car came in until the end of the race,” said Hulkenberg. “I was behind Checo and I felt I had a little more pace, but I was in dirty air and that caused me to struggle towards the end.”
2016 Monaco Grand Prix
This was surely Hulkenberg’s best chance to finish on the podium to date. Having qualified an excellent fifth in Monaco, with only Sebastian Vettel, Daniel Ricciardo and the Mercedes ahead of him, he held his position as the race began on a wet track.
When Vettel ahead pitted to switch to intermediate tyres Hulkenberg followed him after two laps. This proved an error as Vettel had become stuck behind Felipe Massa, who was unwilling to discard his wet weather tyres and holding up a train of cars.
Meanwhile Force India kept Perez’s car out six laps longer on his intermediates, jumping him ahead of Hulkenberg and several other cars and putting him on course for third place. Hulkenberg showed great verve by nipping past Nico Rosberg’s Mercedes for sixth place in sight of the chequered flag, but better things had clearly been on offer.
2016 European Grand Prix
If luck and strategy hadn’t worked out for Hulkenberg in Monaco, two races later in Baku he had no one to blame but himself. Force India were in superb shape at F1’s first race in Azerbaijan. Perez set a qualifying time which was quick enough for a front row spot, only to be bumped back down the grid due to a gearbox change penalty.
He still started in front of Hulkenberg, however, who had spun away his chances during Q2 and lined up 11th. While Perez went on to take third place off Raikkonen’s Ferrari on the final lap, Hulkenberg had to settle for ninth.
2016 Brazilian Grand Prix
Another one for the ‘bad luck’ file. In foul conditions at Interlagos Hulkenberg put a pass on Kevin Magnussen which made your hair stand on end, diving between the Renault and the pit wall. The race was red-flagged soon afterwards due to the conditions and Hulkenberg looked in good shape in fourth place.
But when the field took to the track again for the restart Hulkenberg was quickly summoned back in due to a puncture, and fell to 15th. His penultimate race for Force India was another tale of what might have been. “I don’t know whether to laugh or cry,” he said afterwards.
2017 Azerbaijan Grand Prix
By moving to Renault for 2017 Hulkenberg has finally got himself a drive at a factory squad. But he might have to be patient before that long-awaiting first podium appears.
A glimmer of a chance presented itself in Baku earlier this year. Having started 13th Hulkenberg benefited from the drama unfolding in front of him to climb within reach of the podium.
Could the Renault hold on to such a lofty position? Hulkenberg lost a place to Ricciardo at a restart as the Red Bull driver caught a three-car tow from the Renault and two Williams drivers. While Ricciardo went on to win and one of the Williams drivers reached the podium, Hulkenberg clipped the wall on the next lap and retired.
Hulkenberg’s Driver of the Weekend wins
F1 Fanatic readers have voted Hulkenberg as Driver of the Weekend on four occasions since his F1 debut. The first was for that remarkable drive at Interlagos five years ago.
Of the three other occasions, two included drives for Sauber in 2013. At Italy that year he qualified a remarkable third and finished fifth once the Ferrari pair had overhauled him. He produced another excellent run in the Korean Grand Prix where once again the podium was out of reach.
His most recent Driver of the Weekend win came in Austria two years ago, where he took sixth.
2017 F1 season
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