Carlos Sainz Jnr, Nico Hulkenberg, Renault, 2018

Why Hulkenberg deal could lead to Renault reunion at Audi in 2026

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Two years ago, when Audi announced its plans to enter Formula 1 in 2026, Nico Hulkenberg might not have occured to many as one of its potential drivers.

His career as a full-time F1 driver ended three years earlier, eclipsed by new team mate Daniel Ricciardo at Renault. One too many opportunities had slipped through his fingers to score a breakthrough podium, which eludes him still.

But if anyone still had faith in the potential of a driver who arrived in F1 to huge fanfare 14 years ago, it was surely Andreas Seidl. Now CEO of Sauber Group, which will become Audi’s F1 team after next season, he appointed Hulkenberg when he was running Porsche’s World Endurance Championship team in 2015. Hulkenberg seized the chance and scored what remains his most recent victory to date in the Le Mans 24 Hours with team mates Nick Tandy and Earl Bamber.

That moment of glory aside, the past decade and a half has been astonishingly short of success for a driver who arrived in F1 with Hulkenberg’s CV. Championship wins in Formula BMW Germany, A1 Grand Prix, Formula 3 Euro Series plus a rookie title win in GP2 (now Formula 2) marked him out as the next German star who would pick up where Michael Schumacher and Sebastian Vettel left off.

Nico Hulkenberg, Porsche, Le Mans, 2015
Hulkenberg has already enjoyed success with Audi’s Seidl
Few would have expected Hulkenberg to end up equalling Andrea de Cesaris’s record for starting 208 grands prix without ever winning one, as he did last weekend. But today’s announcement gives the 36-year-old cause to believe he will put that right before he hangs up his helmet. With more drivers racing into their forties, that could still be many years away.

Hulkenberg will return to Sauber next year – where he spent a single, largely unsuccessful season in 2013 – before its rebranding as Audi. “It‘s a big project with high ambitions and a huge challenge,” said Hulkenberg, who said his discussions with Seidl and Audi’s general representative for Formula 1 Oliver Hoffmann as “very trustful, characterised by a lot of appreciation and mutual understanding regarding the common goals.”

His move means the grid for next season is already halfway towards being set. But there are still major decisions to be made in the wake of Lewis Hamilton’s surprise off-season announcement of his move to Ferrari next year.

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Audi’s announcement today may indicate a coming resolution to one of the knock-on effects caused by Hamilton’s move: The displacement of Carlos Sainz Jnr. He could hardly have put on a more convincing display of his potential since learning his time at Ferrari will come to an end.

Carlos Sainz Jnr, Ferrari, Shanghai International Circuit, 2024
Sainz has impressed since Ferrari blow
When the Red Bull-Max Verstappen winning machine faltered in Melbourne, Sainz was there to capitalise, as he did in Singapore last year, overcoming the discomfort of his recent operation. He’s kept team mate Charles Leclerc more than honest in qualifying and reached the podium on two further occasions.

Like Hulkenberg, Sainz is a known quantity to Seidl, following the success they enjoyed at McLaren until Ferrari came calling in 2020. As soon as Hamilton’s Ferrari move was announced, Sainz was rumoured as a potential target for Audi, who he is connected to via his world rally champion father, who triumphed at Dakar for them earlier this year. (Audi then shelved its rally-raid programme to plough more resources into its F1 campaign, so don’t underestimate their commitment.)

Sainz arrived at McLaren from Renault, where he spent just over a year alongside Hulkenberg. Is Seidl seeking to reunite the former Renault team mates?

If so, he may face more competition. Red Bull motorsport consultant Helmut Marko claimed last week Audi had made a significant financial offer to Sainz, which Sauber team representative Alessandro Alunni Bravi refused to comment on. But Sainz may also be eyeing the recent developments at Red Bull, and wondering, as many are, whether Verstappen is prepared to see out his contract with the team.

Whatever happens, it does not bode well for either of Sauber’s current drivers, Valtteri Bottas and Zhou Guanyu. The latter mentioned during his home race last weekend he doesn’t expect further Chinese drivers to arrive in F1 over the coming years. The special treatment F1 lavished on him last weekend, inviting him to celebrate with his fans after the race, may well have been because they had an inkling what was to come.

Zhou Guanyu, Sauber, Shanghai International Circuit, 2024
F1 gave Zhou an opportunity to celebrate with his home fans

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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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9 comments on “Why Hulkenberg deal could lead to Renault reunion at Audi in 2026”

  1. Lots of experience and has always had good matchups against the different teammates he’s had. Good choice from Audi.
    Now let’s see if they can lure Sainz away from Mercedes (or Red Bull?)

    1. Given the current news I doubt there’s significant interest from Sainz for that Red Bull seat.

      1. Newey will either have to fulfill his contract for ’25 and a year of gardening leave for ’26 and he’s currently 65 years of age. Sadly i can’t see it making a difference.

  2. Two number twos? Sainz has lots to offer a current top team, and doesn’t have to commit early to prolong his career like Hulk and Alonso (and Perez would love to.)
    Maybe Audi’s the move after next for him, as a replacement for Hulk?

    1. My understanding is that Audi wants to get rid of both their current drivers and want Sainz as the number 1 guy and Hulkenberg as the solid number 2 who has the advantage of being German.
      It’s a solid move IMHO. Much better than signing Vettel for the « brand name » for example.

  3. Regarding the second-to-last paragraph, Mercedes is also a viable option, & probably more viable than Red Bull Racing, & as he’s said he doesn’t want to be in the midfield next year, I see him going there, even if only for a single season after which he could switch to Team Hinwill when it becomes Audi’s full works team.

    1. no, red bull will still win almost every race next year. The power unit freeze is pretty much locked everyone else in to losing. Sad but true.
      The weird bit is Vettel would still be racing for Red Bull and have about 200 wins (because RBR have a #1) by now if Renault was worth anything in terms of their power unit. And Max would be like the Hulk or whom ever.

  4. We need a Chinese owned team. I’m not Chinese but how can you not have one in this day and age?

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