This morning Racing Point announces Nico Hülkenberg as Sergio Pérez’ replacement, while the latter recovers in isolation from Coronavirus.
Sergio Pérez’ COVID-19 diagnosis may have given Nico Hülkenberg two shots to prove himself again in Formula One.
But even if he takes them, what is the long-term hope for a driver who was once considered ‘the next German star’?
December 1st, 2019 and Nico Hülkenberg’s Formula One career came to a sluggish and anonymous end.
More a sodden squid than anything particularly damp.
Following his Renault teammate Daniel Ricciardo home, Hülkenberg took the chequered flag in 12th position and lapped.
In a season dotted with finishes in the lower points paying positions, he appeared to spend an eternity flirting with anything from 7th to 13th place. A sole top-five at Monza was the only relief in a season where he was classified a solemn 14th in the final standings.
It was over a decade previous when the scope of the younger Hülkenberg’s performances raised eyebrows, as his various titles in Formula BMW, Euro Series F3 and A1 GP attested.
However, it was not just the results that captured eyes, but also the nature of his confidence, which – at times – bordered on irritating arrogance, but was probably closer to a sense of self-belief that was so powerful, as to stun the opposition.
This was most noticeable at a stiflingly hot Valencia. Following a podium in the GP2 Feature Race, Hülkenberg took the Sunday morning Sprint Race win ahead of Sergio Pérez and Vitaly Petrov, after having started 7th.
In the post-race cool down area – which if I remember correctly was behind the podium – Hülkenberg calmly dried his face with a towel and nonchalantly declined a bottle of water, while both Pérez and Petrov were soaked in sweat and breathing heavily.
It was all a show, but one that made a keen impression.
As with his other titles, Hülkenberg took the GP2 title with relative ease that year – and yet for all that promise, apart from several blips, his Formula One career never quite hit the mark.
Admittedly, when the blips blipped, they were very good. Pole at Interlagos with Williams in 2010 was fabulous, as was his challenge for the victory at the same circuit two years later, but beyond that, Hülkenberg’s Formula One tenure was… good. Just not great.
Beyond a few E-sport events, Hülkenberg has not raced since Abu Dhabi. Rumours of a possible DTM drive came to nothing, as did an Indycar opportunity with Ed Carpenter Racing, while the winner of the 2015 Le Mans 24 Hours does not have any options to rejoin the World Endurance Championship.
To be fair, the German stated toward the end of last year that even though was no longer drive for Renault, he would still be available and ready to jump into a seat should one come available – although he said this prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Pérez’ COVID-19 diagnosis just before the British Grand Prix has opened that door for Hülkenberg and considering Racing Point’s form, should he be confirmed for the Silverstone races, Hülkenberg may be in with a very good chance of finally taking a podium, having missed out on a previous 177 occasions.
But then what? In recent seasons, it has often been unclear what Hülkenberg’s long-term ambition really was. He was dutiful in interviews and said the necessary things, but a great many people have misplaced their ambition while saying all the right things.
Does the 32-year-old see the British Grand Prix and its follow-up as an opportunity to kick start his Formula One career, or this about reinvigorating his racing ambitions elsewhere?
A lot has changed since last December. It is desperately unlikely that he has any option for a Formula One drive in 2021, unless something very drastic happens to Sebastian Vettel’s rumoured Aston Martin deal.
From there, Audi’s imminent withdrawal from DTM means that series may not even exist in 2021 and Hülkenberg’s Indycar negotiations were based around is only driving at the road and street races, while leaving the ovals to “An Other”, which would render any championship challenge null-and-void. Having already won Le Mans with Porsche, it is not entirely clear why he would go back to prototype sportscar racing in the WEC.
Hülkenberg has repeatedly said that he has not had conversations with any teams from Formula E, although with the 2020-21 season now converting to just being the 2021, there are still options for Hülkenberg to join the all-electric series.
However one looks at it, the landscape has altered completely in the space of seven months and the once highly-rated Hülkenberg needs to fit his ambitions into that new landscape.
For the meantime, Hülkenberg has obtained a guest drive in the ADAC GT Masters for mid-August at the Nürburgring.
It may not be Formula One, but it is racing. Yet, it will taste a little different.