Maybe it’s a bit naive of me to think that outright talent is the key to a top seat in Formula 1, but it’s long been the general consensus that Nico Hulkenberg is one of the better drivers on the grid who is not currently occupying a front-running race car.
So, why isn’t he?
Let’s take a look at some of his many stand-out performances. The German grabbed a shock pole position towards the end of his debut season with Williams in 2010, something that was largely achieved by reading conditions perfectly at Interlagos, and sneaking out on track with a set of dry tyres on while everyone else was dithering about with intermediates. However, this alone was not enough to keep him at the team, and the British outfit signed P(DVS)Astor Maldonado for 2011, leaving him without a seat. Luckily, Force India recruited him as a third driver.
When he stepped up to race driver for the team in 2012, the incident-packed Belgian Grand Prix provided his best finish to date of 4th place. That year was good to him, and at the season finale The Hulk proved himself as a Sao Paolo specialist, leading 29 laps. He could well have won the race (or at least finished on the podium) if not for a desperate spin into Lewis Hamilton and subsequent drive-through penalty, but still, it was the first time F1 audiences saw a ‘1’ next to his name in race conditions, and we felt like it might not be the last.
Arguably his best drive to date was Korea 2013, where he staved off World Champions Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso in a greatly-improved Sauber, to take another 4th-placed finish.
With Sauber’s strong links to Ferrari, some tipped the 2009 GP2 champ to be the Scuderia’s newest recruit after Felipe Massa moved on, but the red team have since brought back Kimi Raikkonen (cancelling a rumoured contract for Hulkenberg through the means of text, no less) and have hired a different German instead.
Lotus looked like they might be able to throw him a contract, but he was once again blocked by Pastor’s Pesetas, something for which he might now be thankful, given Lotus’ 2014 campaign. And so, our man made his way back to familiar territory with Force India.
For all his speed and consistency, the fact remains that Nico is yet to step foot on the podium. One of the most recent drivers to step up from a midfield team to a championship contender was Sergio Perez, who moved to McLaren after a fantastic year with Sauber in 2012. Checo grabbed three podiums that season, so maybe silverware is the key to progression?
Now the two are teammates and look to be roughly similar on pace, and while last year it was the Hulk who had a higher points tally, (98 to 59) only Checo was able to grab that elusive trophy, with an stunning third place in Bahrain.
With Ferrari stepping up to the challenge this year and Williams holding their ground, podiums could be out of the question for Force India this year, meaning that a Korea 2013 type performance may be needed to keep this season from being an unremarkable one.
The trouble is, even if he won the rest of the races this year, “silly season” is a cruel and unpredictable mistress. Mercedes are locked-in with their duo, writing that off instantly. Rumours have been circulating this week that Valterri Bottas is being eyed-up by Ferrari, which would potentially leave a gap at Williams, his old team. Felipe Massa is not getting any younger, either.
You can scoff at rumours all you like, but three years ago, nobody believed that Lewis Hamilton was heading to Mercedes. Would it be worth the risk to jump ship? The drivers’ merry-go-round in F1 can spit you back out into unfavourable conditions, something Fernando Alonso has learned this year. The way I see it, Hulkenberg has three options: stay with Force India in the hopes that they come of age, jump at a gap in the market when it inevitably appears around September time, or move away from F1 altogether.
Nico debuted in the World Endurance Championship this weekend for Porsche LMP1, finishing 6th in the Spa event. He’s also on the entry list for the 24 hours of Le Mans too; if he enjoys it enough, who’s to say he won’t sign on full time for next season?
Hopefully, his Formula 1 (Champion)ship has not yet sailed.