After being detained for six years* in the Formula 1 midfield, Nico Hulkenberg is seeking a full season’s drive in World Endurance Championship, having already landed a two-race contract with Porsche.
A look back at his frustrating F1 career
Hulkenberg arrived in Formula 1 after a propitious career in juniour categories, including titles in Formula 3 and GP2. His GP2 feat is all the more impressive, considering it was in his debut season.
Naturally, expectations were high and the driver he was competing against in equal machinery was none other than Rubens Barrichello - a veteran of 300 grands prix. Despite seven top results(including a sixth place in Hungary) and the famous pole position in treacherous conditions in Sau Paulo, the German was replaced by Pastor Maldonado and his Venezuelan backers.
With no race drive in sight, Hulkenberg went to the emerging Force India team and spent a season on the sidelines as team’s official test driver. When Adrian Sutil was fired after an infamous incident with Renault's Eric Lux at a bar in China, Hulkenberg was promoted to the race seat alongside the highly rated and Mercedes backed driver Paul di Resta.
With a competitive car under his belt, Hulkenberg shined, outscoring Di Resta, 63 points to 46. A fourth place drive at Spa was his highlight of the year and placed him firmly in the list of F1’s rising stars.
Eager to make a marker among the top teams, Hulkenberg moved to Sauber for the 2013 season - a team that scored a string of podiums the previous year, primarily because of better tyre management. However, the move appeared to backfire, at least at the start of the season, with Sauber designing a car that was barely capable of finishing in the points.
As the season progressed, the car improved and so did Hulkenberg’s results with the German holding off Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes to score an excellent fourth place finish at the Korean Grand Prix. However, he remained eluded of a podium finish - and a place in the cockpit of a top team.
Hulkenberg then cleverly returned to Force India for the new season, aware that the Mercedes engine will give it a headstart over some other (underpowered) teams. What followed were 10 consecutive top 10 finishes, including plenty of 5th place results. However, a critical mistake during the qualifying of the Bahrain Grand Prix meant that it was his teammate Sergio Perez that got the opportunity to stand on the rostrum.
If you exclude that standout results, Hulkenberg always seemed have the edge over the Mexican. Apparently, it wasn’t enough and he was forced to spend another year in the midfield.
Current frustration and the tempt of factory drive in WEC
Hulkenberg finds himself in a difficult situation at the moment. Force India have started the season on the backfoot, having been hit by financial issues and delayed by a change of windtunnel.
While the VJM08 is expected to improve as the season progress, there’s no guarantee his consistent results will help him secure a drive in a top team. Mercedes are eager on extending Hamilton’s contract while Ferrari appears to be impressed by Raikkonen’s podium finish in Bahrain. Red Bull
Naturally, it would only be apt for Hulkenberg to leave F1 altogether and join an emerging series with a factory team. Porsche has spent enormous amount of resources on their WEC return and managed to win the curtain-closing Six Hours of Brazil race last season.
The 919 Hybrid has seen heavy upgrades over the winter and the power unit has been upgraded to the 8mj category. Rivals have almost given up on beating Porsche in a one-lap fight and further upgrades are in the pipeline to make the car more competitive in race trim.
And if Hulkenberg does shine in the third Porsche at Spa and Le Mans - to which the German sportscar maker has made special efforts to ensure its equal to its regular counterparts - we won’t be surprised to see the 27 year old being handed a full season’s drive.
And if he does get poached by Porsche and goes on to become one of the stars of WEC, F1 will certainly repent on losing one of its greatest talents in recent years.
One will have to ponder why he was snubbed by teams competing at the sharper end of the grid. He was on the radar of every rich team in the paddock, but never came close to putting pen to paper. Was his weight too much of an issue in the current V6 era - enough to overshadow his raw speed and consistency? And do drivers of Hulkenberg's calibre really need to bring a budget along with them?
Red Bull’s decision to promote Daniel Ricciardo to their flagship team paid dividends almost instantly. What are other teams waiting for? Sign him up or risk losing him to another racing category.