We decided to highlight three drivers to watch, for different reasons, in the course of the weekend ahead. Yesterday it was seasoned Brazilian race-winner Felipe Massa; today we look at Germany’s Nico Hulkenberg.
Never go back, they say – but what would they know?
Nico Hulkenberg is back, and to him it feels like going back home – to the Force India team he represented in 2011 as a ‘third driver’ and in 2012 as a ‘proper’ occupant of a race seat.
Dr. Vijay Mallya, owner of the team, said the German’s return was “a real statement of intent and a huge boost for everyone”, which of course begs the question: why did they let him leave in the first place? But that’s another story…
Nico, now 26, came into F1 in 2010 on the back of a strong apprenticeship in the junior categories.
It began in Formula BMW in Germany in 2005, continued through F3 and A1 Grand Prix, where he was highly successful for Team Germany, and really blossomed in GP2.
Hulkenberg, driving for the well-known ART outfit, won the GP2 title in 2009. It’s worth recalling that he out-scored his teammate by a cool 64 points that year – and the teammate in question was Pastor Maldonado.
Hulkenberg was snapped up by Williams for 2010 but ironically it was Maldonado’s millions that cost the German his seat there – even though he had taken the team’s first pole position for five seasons in his final outing for them in Brazil.
That led to a first season in Force India colours, staying in the background until promoted to a race seat in 2012.
In each of the last two years Hulkenberg has managed a best result of fourth. In 2012 it came at the magnificent Spa-Francorchamps circuit in Belgium.
“I was up a high as second and for a while I was even thinking we could finish on the podium,” said Hulkenberg after that achievement.
“But the race was tough; I had some great fights with Kimi (Raikkonen) and Michael (Schumacher), and I was always on the limit. For us it was clear that we had to stop twice and we made the strategy work. So I’ve got a big smile on my face today.”
In 2013, his solitary year as a Sauber driver, Hulkenberg was fourth again in Korea.
“It is so much fun driving here,” he beamed after qualifying in the top 10. And when the race was over he added, “Today I drove one of the best races in my career so far. I have had cars in the mirrors before, but today there were a lot and it was a bit annoying!”
So has The Hulk come home? “In a way, for sure, it is that kind of feeling,” he agrees. “It should make all the normal processes you go through on a race weekend easier, because I know most of the people. I have the same race engineer and lots of the same mechanics, so that's going to help. It will make the transition and bedding-in time shorter.”It’s also worth recalling that in Qatar in 2009, when Hulkenberg powered to victory in the GP2 Asia race, the man in second place – 13 seconds adrift – was his new teammate Sergio Perez. They are at similar stages in their careers and with extended help from Mercedes on both engine and gearbox they will be expected to push each other and Force India to a higher level this year. “The team is aiming high for next year and I believe that the experience I have gained over the years will help us achieve those goals,” insists Hulkenberg. “I genuinely believe we can have a competitive package in 2014. I know this team and I can see their determination; it’s a great bunch of people and we all share the same hunger for success.”