Formula 1 driver Nico Hulkenberg returned to competition this year. After a year on the shelf, an unpredictable set of circumstances saw him back in the action. The 32-year-old has the chance of a lifetime to re-integrate himself into the scene if a spot opens up on current team Racing Point or elsewhere.
But there are no guarantees. His finishes for 2020 are solid enough to justify further work, but as always, the competition for spots is fierce. Will Hulkenberg guarantee his return? Or does his flagging performance at 32 send off the wrong signals compared to a 35-year-old star like Lewis Hamilton?
How Nico Hulkenberg wound up away from racing for a year
Hulkenberg made his 1997 debut in the niche scene that often trains future F1 stars, karting. His real explosion as a professional racer happened in 2010, with the Williams team. He earned pole position, Williams’ first in five years at that point. But it wasn’t enough for them to keep him on board, a preview of the frustrating so-close-but-so-far career path Hulkenberg would endure.
Red Bull Racing reports that Hulkenberg’s on-again, off-again run with Force India — later rebranded as Racing Point — began in 2012. He worked mainly as an incredibly successful reserve driver, landing with Renault in 2017. There, he outpaced his teammates for his first two years. Sport24 wrote him up as the best driver in F1 to consistently miss podium finishes. His 2018 decline to 14th place in the overall standings spelled the end of his career, which he referred to at the time as “a relief.”
Why Racing Point called Hulkenberg back into action
F1 was one of the first sports to return during the early, unstable months of the COVID-19 pandemic. The lack of crowds stuck out, of course, but the action was comforting and familiar for viewers at home. Still, the virus loomed over the proceedings, creating instability as team members, including drivers, had to recuse themselves from appearing at races.
The sports’ loss was Hulkenberg’s gain in an odd way. Thinking he was retired, he instead found himself replacing Racing Point driver Sergio Perez as he recovered from COVID-19. Sky Sports notes that the call came suddenly, giving Hulkenberg about an hour to rush off from a sports car test drive he was working on at that moment.
Unfortunately, his luck quickly ran out. His first race day appearance was dashed by a mechanical failure on his vehicle, as Formula1.com reports. That expensive team failure thankfully didn’t repeat, and Hulkenberg managed to compete in two race weekends. He’s back on the shelf once more, now that Perez is finally healthy and ready to drive.
How Hulkenberg stacks up to Lewis Hamilton
Hulkenberg’s short return to F1 showed him in great shape by his second and final completed race. Formula1.com praised his results, a third-place qualifier, and a seventh-place finish at Silverstone Circuit. As always, with Hulkenberg, it was a solid performance in a context that might not help him land a spot anytime soon.
Yahoo! Sports reports that Hulkenberg’s teammate Lance Stroll came in a spot ahead of him. Hulkenberg showed signs of decline as a driver during 2018, as well. This is worrying for teams looking to fill in spots when drivers like Lewis Hamilton, at 35, turn in better results. Hamilton came in fifth in this particular race, as a direct comparison to Hulkenberg.
Still, there’s a chance Hulkenberg’s tangible results will get him a spot in 2021. Formula1.com spoke with him just before Perez returned. He confirmed that talks with F1 teams are ongoing, and interest appears strong. Hopefully, he’ll avoid mechanical trouble and show off his actual racing prowess the next time he gets a shot.