The Nico Hulkenberg question

In just under three months’ time it looks very likely that Nico Hulkenberg will be without a seat in Formula One.

The highly talented German, who in his junior years was touted as ‘the next Michael Schumacher’ through raw talent and the fact he was being nurtured by Schumacher’s manager Willi Weber, was dumped by Renault in favour of Frenchman Esteban Ocon last month and then missed out on a seat at Haas for next season, a seat that was supposedly being kept warm for him.

And with only four seats left on the 2020 grid, none of which seem likely to go to 32-year-old, it seems very likely that he’ll have to continue his racing elsewhere next year.

But the question has to be asked how this is possible? How can such a talented driver as Nico Hulkenberg miss out on remaining in the sport he has been a part of for a decade?

One fact that can’t be ignored is the record he unwillingly holds in having participated in the most races in history without scoring a podium, a streak that currently sits at 173.

On paper this isn’t a great look for a Formula One driver, a sport that is as ruthless as it is unforgiving. But barring a couple of self-inflicted mistakes over the years, Hulkenberg has never truly been in a position to take that step on the rostrum.

Put this down to the dominance of other teams in the sport as well as his knack of being in the wrong team at the wrong time, and luck has never really come his way to taste that champagne.

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Nico Hulkenberg. (Gil Abrantes / Flickr)

His seat selection too has also never really been able to showcase his talent. Big things were expected of him in his debut season in 2010 at Williams, a reputation that brought about 22 points and a pole position in a fairly average FW32.

This was then followed by a year off as a test driver at Force India due to being dumped by Williams in favour of his royal crashness Pastor Maldonado, before several strong showings from 2012 onwards at Force India, Sauber and Renault proved his credentials.

Only once in those seven seasons did he score less than 50 points (2017 with Renault), and twice did he finish behind a teammate (Sergio Perez in 2015 and 2016). His consistency was easily on par, if not better, than many mid-field drivers, especially his extremely strong showing in 2013 at Sauber.

2019 has been a difficult year for both him and Renault. It was expected the French outfit would challenge for podiums this season and stamp themselves as ‘the best of the rest’ behind the big three of Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull.

But with the team beset by numerous issues and unreliability problems, they have spent most of the season fighting with McLaren for fourth place in the constructors championship.

The decision to replace him at the team with Ocon was mostly met with positive reaction. Ocon is highly regarded in many F1 circles and there was large outcry in 2018 when he was unable to secure a drive for 2019.

Having a French driver in a French team alongside the talent that is Daniel Ricciardo gives them an exciting future moving forward and one that Enstone based team will hope comes sooner rather than later.

But for Hulkenberg, a man who has remained loyal to the team since moving there in 2017 and saw an opportunity to race for a fully operational works team as a groundbreaking moment in his career, it just hasn’t worked out.

It’s a shame that there hasn’t been a similar outcry for Hulkenberg leaving as there was for Ocon last year. Ocon, while young and unquestionably talented, is still fairly untested in the sport after having a hit and miss time at Force India/Racing Point during his time there.

There also has to be some questions over whether he is being given too much praise for such a limited time in the sport in a similar way that his fellow countryman Pierre Gasly went from being highly respected to quickly thrown away when given a bigger opportunity.

Yes Hulkenberg is a decade older and there isn’t as much of a future with him compared to what Ocon brings, but he has remained a consistent enough driver with enough experience to be a safe bet for at least a couple of seasons moving forward.

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The Hulk in happier times. (Andrew Matthews/PA via AP)

It would be fantastic to see him in a Red Bull and finally be given an opportunity in a top team, but team principal Christian Horner all but quashed any chance of that at the Singapore Grand Prix last weekend.

Alfa Romeo too now looks very unlikely given the recent form of Antonio Giovinazzi as well as their tight connection to Ferrari, and a move back to Williams also seems very unlikely given their current fortunes and the fact Hulkenberg has said he wouldn’t want to stay in the sport to just make up the numbers.

Unless he is willing to take another year off and work as a test/simulator driver, F1 just doesn’t seem likely anymore for him.

At the end of the day the final answer to how this is possible seemingly comes down to Formula One being extremely brutal. Countless drivers in the 60-year history of the sport have never been given their full potential due to the politics, money and everything else that comes with it.

Recent untapped drivers such as Jean-Éric Vergne, Pascal Wehrlein and Felipe Nasr have all shown their worth in the smaller teams to warrant being given a better chance but have sadly fallen by the wayside.

Then there are the numerous other drivers who have never even made it into F1 and instead brought their talents to other motor racing categories around the world.

There are only 20 seats on the grid in Formula One, and just too many talented men and women out there to be able to have them all in one.

With only six races remaining in the 2019 Formula One season, perhaps the F1 gods will somehow find a way for the Hulk to remain on the grid next year.

Hell, they might even give him his first opportunity to stand on that elusive podium finally. But whatever happens moving forward, it remains a shame that the incredibly talented and likeable German is seemingly about to have his career cut short and join that ‘what could’ve been club’ that so many in the sport are members of.

This article was originally written for The Roar. You can read the published version here

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