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Nico Hulkenberg

How Hulkenberg has retained value despite lack of F1 success

Nico Hulkenberg has committed his Formula 1 future to the Audi project and will join the team next year while it still runs under the Stake F1 name.

Hulkenberg Bahrain test
To news overview © XPBimages

Nico Hulkenberg looked set to bow out of Formula 1 at the end of 2019. The German driver completed nine seasons in the series but was shifted out of Renault to make way for Esteban Ocon.

After an absence of more than three years, Hulkenberg returned to F1 in 2023, somewhat surprisingly. Haas took a risk but it prevailed as aside from his strong results, Hulkenberg's vast experience has aided the team's development, partly seen by this year's step forward.

It also seems to be the main reason for Audi to bring in the German, although, of course, his nationality is an extra benefit for the German carmaker.

However, it has not always been rosy for Hulkenberg with F1. Several times the German seemed to be able to think of retiring early, yet time after time he performed to high standards.

But one staple on his career to date is being the driver with the most races without a podium, and since the Chinese Grand Prix earlier this month, he has also been at the top of the list of most Grand Prix starts without a victory.

So how does Hulkenberg still manage to stay attractive to F1 teams?

The early years

To answer that question, we have to go back almost 15 years. When Hulkenberg entered F1 in 2010, the German already had an impressive resume after winning Formula BMW, A1GP, Formula 3 Euroseries and GP2 (current Formula 2), among other categories.

The German was praised in the entry-level classes for his sheer speed and expertise at tuning the car. Not surprisingly, Williams contracted him at the end of 2009 and there, he drove a fine debut season and even took a memorable pole position in Brazil.

At the end of 2010, Williams said goodbye to Hulkenberg as Pastor Maldonado brought with him lucrative sponsorship money and was preferred by the struggling team.

Hulkenberg found shelter at Force India, but only as a reserve driver. After watching on the sidelines for a year, the German returned to F1 in 2012, when he took over Adrian Sutil's seat.

His full-time position at the Indian team lasted only one season, as Hulkenberg made the choice to head for Sauber. The Swiss team had one of its best seasons in 2012, but with Hulkenberg on board, Sauber, however, did not advance beyond seventh place in the championship.

Hulkenberg, in turn, finished tenth in the drivers' championship and at the end of the season, he announced that he would return to Force India.

			© xpb.cc
	© xpb.cc

Big name in the midfield

Hulkenberg's Force India reunion offered a moment of peace in his F1 career. Competitively, the team was in a stable position in the midfield group and although he didn't advance beyond ninth in the standings, he picked up points in almost all races.

For three years, Hulkenberg was a name to be reckoned with. The German consistently picked up points - but still, a podium finish was missing from his trophy cabinet.

On the other side of the garage, team-mate Sergio Perez secured four podiums in the three years they were paired together. Hulkenberg's input on the track, as well as steering the team in the right direction, helped earn Force India a fourth-place finish in the 2016 standings.

The German's abilities also caught the eye of other teams and in the end, Hulkenberg shifted to Renault. Perhaps it was a choice Hulkenberg regrets in retrospect as a number of weeks later, world champion Rosberg announced his decision to retire.

Hulkenberg was tied to Renault and so the door was closed on a swap to Mercedes. However, with new technical regulations coming in 2017, he eyed an opportunity.

			© XPBimages
	© XPBimages

Fighting divorce with Renault

At Renault, the team failed to develop out of the midfield year in and year out. The reliability of the French car and engine was not strong either. In three seasons with the French team, Hulkenberg retired nine times with mechanical problems.

It caused tensions within the team and after three fairly colourless seasons in which Renault rarely came close to the podium, the two sides parted ways in 2019. Hulkenberg was pushed aside for Frenchman Esteban Ocon, with Hulkenberg suggesting at the time that Ocon's nationality helped him secure the drive.

And so, Hulkenberg was suddenly without a seat for 2020 and the German had to settle for a role as reserve driver at Racing Point.

It was a team he knew well from the days it ran under the Force India moniker, but Hulkenberg maintained that he would race again in F1. With some luck, that return came.

			© XPBimages
	© XPBimages

COVID-19 to the rescue

2020 marked a strange year for everyone. The season failed to get underway until July due to the Covid-19 pandemic and soon after, when the paddock descended on Silverstone, Sergio Perez tested positive for the virus.

In came Hulkenberg, who qualified in 12th but was unable to start the race due to a mechanical issue. With Perez ruled out for the second race at Silverstone the following week, Hulkenberg starred to third place on the grid before crossing the line in seventh.

In Spain, however, Perez returned and so Hulkenberg had to take his place as a reserve once again. Later that season, he got to fill in at his home race at the Nürburgring, this time, in place of Lance Stroll.

Once more he secured points in eighth, ensuring he finished ahead of a number of full-time drivers in the standings.

In 2021 Hulkenberg was not in action, but the following year, the German made another appearance. At the newly renamed Aston Martin team, Sebastian Vettel was ruled out due to Covid-19 and Hulkenberg filled in again. His comeback is less successful this time, finishing 17th and 12th in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, respectively.

However, these five substitute appearances proved crucial to a full-time F1 return. Haas beckoned his services to replace Mick Schumacher, excited by the experience on offer from Hulkenberg.

Hulkenberg's tenure with the team has so far been successful, even if he has been fighting towards the rear of the field.

His strong performances resulted in a renewed F1 opportunity through a drive with the Audi factory squad in 2026.

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