“I didn’t like going in the paddock so much”: Hulkenberg on his happier return to F1


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“If I was any more relaxed, I would be liquid.”

Veteran Formula 1 driver Nico Hulkenberg, by his own admission, prefers things to be “nice and easy.” And yet, after sitting out the last three full seasons with only a handful of stand-in appearances, he chose to return to a full-time seat in F1 – where life is anything but “nice and easy”.

In a sport where fans seem rabid for any morsel of off-track drama to devour, F1 drivers can be as measured and precise in their choice of words as they are about their wing angles or anti-roll bar settings. So it’s little wonder that modern drivers have a reputation for holding back with what they really think, instead of being truly honest.

And then, there’s Nico Hulkenberg.

Austria was one of few highlights so far this year
The 36-year-old veteran of Formula 1 may not spring immediately to mind as among the most maverick drivers of the 21st century like Juan Pablo Montoya or Mark Webber. But, compared to his 19 peers, he could well be among the most straight-talking talents on the current grid. And unlike the likes of, say, Max Verstappen, the Haas driver doesn’t get half as much time in the limelight.

So an opportunity to sit down with Hulkenberg in the Singapore paddock was an enticing one. Arriving back into a full-time Formula 1 seat, Hulkenberg entered the 2023 season needing to prove his team right for choosing him over the far younger Mick Schumacher. But six months and one contract extension later, those who questioned his team’s choice have long since fallen silent.

But after all that time away, how has he found his return to the highest level of motorsport?

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“I haven’t spoken about that yet this year,” he begins, words saturated with sarcasm at first. “Let’s talk about it.”

Nico Hulkenberg talking to RaceFans' Claire Cottingham
Life in the F1 midfield is “always a grind”
“It’s very enjoyable,” he continues. “I think for me, the three years kind of away from F1 were really positive, personally. To really disconnect from F1 and from racing and just kind of do normal life for a bit – get married, build a family, all these things – and then kind of become very hungry for it again. Feel the hunger and the passion a lot again.

“So it’s worked out really well, actually. I feel really happy and balanced where I am now. Satisfied and hungry for more.”

Hulkenberg joined Haas – his fifth different F1 outfit in a career spanning 14 years – with the goal of steering the team to a better future with similarly experienced team mate Kevin Magnussen. But at this stage of the season, Haas are sitting in eighth in the standings – exactly where they finished a year ago. But despite only reaching the top 10 in a grand prix once so far this season, Hulkenberg says his return to the sport has been “mostly good”.

“Of course, we’ve had a difficult run recently on Sundays and we suffer on Sundays,” he admits. “Obviously that’s frustrating, especially in the moment and even the day after and stuff. But the positives still outweigh the negatives by far.

“When I committed to it last year, I knew that there was not only going to be sunny days, there’s also going to be rainy days and this is part of the journey, part of F1, part of this job. We’re trying obviously to work our way through and then to make it better.”

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That journey will certainly last beyond 2023 as Haas have confirmed both Hulkenberg and Magnussen will race again for them next season. Team principal Guenther Steiner said that Hulkenberg had “simply slotted in without fuss or fanfare” and had “proved himself to be a valuable member of the team”. It only seems fair to ask him how his relationship is with the notoriously straight-shooting Steiner.

“He’s direct,” Hulkenberg says. “So am I. Maybe that’s why we get along so well.

“He’s fine. We have a very good relationship. I think we have good communication, open communication all the time and being able to talk another language also actually helps and is quite comfortable. So things are good.”

Hulkenberg has spent all 197 grands prix of his career racing for teams that finished either fourth, fifth, sixth or seventh in the constructors’ championship, but Haas look set to be the ‘worst’ performing team that he will have ever driven for. Is this the hardest he has had to dig to try and extract results from his car?

“I don’t want to say the hardest,” he says. “We’ve always had to dig hard for all my career I’ve spent in the midfield – which is pretty tough and rough out there. You need elbows in the midfield. So it’s always a grind. You always have to push. You always have to bring your ‘A-game’.

“I feel like in the midfield, as soon as one thing doesn’t go right, you pay the price immediately. It’s pretty unforgiving, I feel, maybe now more than ever.

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“The midfield has maybe even become bigger and more compact, more tight. There’s no real backmarker anymore because there’s just like 10 cars within two or three tenths. So it’s very, very unforgiving and little details can have a big impact.”

Steiner is ‘direct, like me – maybe that’s why we get on!’
The closeness of the midfield is partly a consequence of F1’s budget cap, which was introduced during Hulkenberg’s time away from the cockpit. As one of many major changes implemented by the FIA and the sport’s owners Liberty Media between 2019 and this season, is he happy with the direction that F1 is heading in – particularly given that he drivers for the series’ only American team?

He takes a moment. “Yeah,” he eventually replies. “I’m not against it or unhappy.

“Obviously an American company owns F1. America is a big market anyway. Obviously there’s reasons – commercial reasons – but it makes sense to go in and explore or exploit that country a bit more. I think Austin has been a success from the beginning – I’m a big fan of Austin. I think Miami has also been a success. Let’s see what Las Vegas has to offer.”

Although being mired in the midfield has been the reality of Hulkenberg’s career throughout his time in Formula 1, he always aspired to end up fighting for more. Joining the grid with Williams after winning the GP2 championship as a rookie in a field that featured many future F1 drivers – Sergio Perez, Romain Grosjean, Pastor Maldonado, Kamui Kobayashi, Vitaly Petrov, Jerome d’Ambrosio, Karun Chandhok, Lucas di Grassi and Giedo van der Garde – his potential seemed boundless. And when he took a famous pole position at Interlagos, it felt like that was surely the first of many.

Yet it never transpired that way. Ultimately, he holds the unfortunate record of the most grands prix without a podium and is staring down the prospect of overtaking Andrea de Cesaris for the most grand prix starts without a victory if he fails to take a chequered flag by the end of next year’s Miami Grand Prix.

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Naturally, he’s doing the best he can with what he has to try and make that happen. But if you ask him if he thinks he could still become world champion, that refreshing honesty of his comes forward.

Hulkenberg says he’s in a “good headspace” back in F1
“No – it’s a bit silly for me to say that,” he admits, frankly. “I think that’s not realistic.

“As much as maybe you want to dream about it or do dream about it, I think that’s not on the cards for the moment. For me, it is about enjoying the ride, enjoying what I do and getting the most out of it every time.

“I think that’s a really important line, because in this industry and sport, you’re only going to win if you have the right material. If you don’t, your reality is you’re just not going to win. This is just how it is. Unless something very crazy happens, unforeseen. So the next big thing for me is to do absolutely what you can and to bring your A-game every time and to maximise what you have.”

This considered response is no surprise for a driver who has had plenty of time sitting on the sidelines and watching from the outside in. Having almost a full decade of racing in Formula 1 only to take an extended break away before rejoining, it’s only natural that he has developed a different perspective on the sport.

“I think it’s more that I’m just in a good headspace,” he explains. “I’m happy where I am. I feel very comfortable in my own skin.

“I think towards the end of my first stint, there were moments where I didn’t like going in the paddock so much and things got a little, like, tense and tight also with the team, with the management back then. I just wasn’t feeling so happy anymore, wasn’t enjoying it so much. So I guess that’s different and that’s just then a good positive feeling, an environment that makes me happy.”

Whatever his future at Haas – or indeed Formula 1 – has in store for him, Hulkenberg is not going to get sucked into any pointless moping over whether or not he’ll end up getting that elusive win or podium.

“It’s not on my mind,” he insists. “It’s like I said, want to maximise what I have. As long as we don’t have the material I think that’s not on the cards. That’s not realistic.

“Of course, I want to be as successful as possible, as we can, but if it happens, great. If not, life goes on.”

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Author information

Will Wood
Will has been a RaceFans contributor since 2012 during which time he has covered F1 test sessions, launch events and interviewed drivers. He mainly...
Claire Cottingham
Claire has worked in motorsport for much of her career, covering a broad mix of championships including Formula One, Formula E, the BTCC, British...

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4 comments on ““I didn’t like going in the paddock so much”: Hulkenberg on his happier return to F1”

  1. Coventry Climax
    28th September 2023, 19:09

    Nice read. Thank you, Will Wood and Claire Cottingham.

    1. Michael (@freelittlebirds)
      30th September 2023, 1:41

      Yeah, it’s great to hear from Nico. He’s such a cool-headed and likable driver.

  2. Now I think about it, magnussen and grosjean got their podiums while at mclaren and lotus respectively, haas never got a podium, so driving for a car that never got a podium for several years makes it hard, however he certainly threw some chance away while in force india and renault, and other drivers there managed.

    But like he said at this point a podium doesn’t change your life, it’s not like you’re getting a top team offer if you get on the podium, by now his level has been assessed, and I think he could maybe do as well as perez 2022 in a top team.

  3. He’s likely driving better because of his relaxed attitude and not getting annoyed by the ever-distant podium.

    Indeed with the Haas operating model it would take many stars and planets to align perfectly for a podium to happen.

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