When Renault announced last year they would not extend Nico Hulkenberg’s contract to drive for them, a career which once promised so much seemed to have come to an unsatisfactory end.Sebastian Vettel as champion of Germany’s competitive Formula BMW series, took Germany to the A1 Grand Prix title, and comfortably beat Edoardo Mortara and Jules Bianchi to the 2008 Formula Three Euroseries crown.
The crowning achievement of his meteoric rise through the lower leagues was a consummate GP2 (now Formula 2) title win as a rookie in 2009, just as Lewis Hamilton had done three years earlier. All signs appeared to point to F1 stardom.
Underlining his potential, Hulkenberg caused a sensation during his first Formula 1 season. Amid a five-way title fight involving Vettel, Hamilton, Fernando Alonso, Jenson Button and Mark Webber, the rookie took advantage of a damp qualifying session to plant his unfancied Williams-Cosworth on pole position.
By then, Williams had already decided to take Pastor Maldonado’s Bolivars for 2010, and Hulkenberg was shown the door. He spent 2011 on the bench, then returned to competitive action with Force India – the team he will drive for this weekend, now renamed Racing Point.
On his return to Interlagos in 2012 it temporarily seemed as if the normal rules of car performance did not apply for Hulkenberg at this track. He led 30 laps – more than anyone else in the day’s tricky conditions. But a momentary misjudgement sent him into the side of Hamilton’s McLaren, and a podium chance was missed.
Otmar Szafnauer, who oversaw the team then as well as now, called that “the race where Hulkenberg should have won”. It proved the first example of what was to become a frustratingly familiar phenomenon. Time and again Hulkenberg would work himself into podium contention only to miss out.
Quite often this was due to some misfortune – a puncture (Interlagos 2016), power unit failure (Singapore 2017) or poor strategy (Monaco 2016). But more frequently it was due to an error on Hulkenberg’s past: the Baku crashes of 2016 and 2018, or that spin into the wall in his home race last year.
The latter made for an especially painful episode of Netflix’s Drive to Survive, which tied to Hulkenberg’s departure from the team, cemented his identity: No longer the potential heir to the Schumi mantle, nor the midfield talent the top teams kept overlooking, but the guy who kept throwing podiums away.
Now he may have the chance to put that right. Over the first three races of 2020 the Racing Point RP20 has looked like a potential podium contender in the right hands. Those hands might just – at long last – be Hulkenberg’s.
2020 F1 season
- Bottas vs Rosberg: Hamilton’s Mercedes team mates compared after 78 races each
- F1 revenues fell by $877 million in Covid-struck 2020 season
- Hamilton and Mercedes finally announce new deal for 2021 season
- F1 audience figures “strong” in 2020 despite dip in television viewers
- 2020 F1 driver rankings #1: Lewis Hamilton