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The best and worst F1 driver comebacks

Nico Hulkenberg is preparing to make his full-time return to the Formula 1 grid in 2023, following in the footsteps of several drivers before him who made comebacks. However, some fared better than others when they rejoined the F1 pack.

Just one year after Kevin Magnussen made a surprise return to F1, Haas will again field a comeback driver in 2023 as Nico Hulkenberg rejoins the grid. The German last completed a full season in the sport back in 2019, but often impressed during substitute performances for Racing Point/Aston Martin on occasions when their drivers contracted COVID-19 in 2020 and 2022. But can Hulkenberg maintain this over the course of the 2023 campaign after three years on the sidelines? He certainly won't be the first driver to find out whether they still have what it takes following a period of absence from the sport. Several big-name stars of Formula 1 have made comebacks in the past, with some proving more successful than others.

Fernando Alonso

At 35, Hulkenberg will be one of the older drivers on the grid in 2023, but his experience does not quite match up to that of Fernando Alonso, who made his return to Formula 1 in 2021. The Spaniard had first walked away at the end of 2018 after a difficult four-year spell with McLaren, during which he rarely found the opportunity to fight at the front of the pack. Alonso opted to compete in other categories of motorsport in the two years that followed and, like Hulkenberg, became a winner in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The two-time World Champion also took part in the Indianapolis 500 and the Dakar Rally. Despite success in these other pursuits, the lure of F1 was seemingly too much for Alonso to resist, and he joined the Alpine squad for the 2021 season. While the car was not able to battle with the front-runners, Alonso showed that he had lost none of his determination. He secured his first podium in seven years at the Qatar Grand Prix, and finished the season ahead of teammate Esteban Ocon in the World Championship standings. Alpine delivered a faster but often less reliable car in 2022, resulting in frustration for Alonso who opted to move to Aston Martin on a multi-year contract in 2023. He will turn 42 during the season, but shows no signs of wanting to leave F1 behind again any time soon.

Michael Schumacher

Perhaps one of the most anticipated comebacks ever occured when Michael Schumacher – the legendary seven-times World Champion – decided to return to Formula 1 in 2010. The German had previously ended his illustrious F1 career in 2006, shortly after a period of dominance with Ferrari which saw him claim the title for five consecutive years between 2000 and 2004. Who put an end to his reign? Future returnee Alonso, as it happens. The then 41-year-old Schumacher opted to make his comeback with the new Mercedes team, where he was reunited with his former Ferrari colleague Ross Brawn. But sadly the German never managed to reach the levels of his previous success. In his three years with Mercedes, Schumacher was often outpaced by teammate Nico Rosberg and only stood on the podium once. At the end of 2012, Schumacher retired for a second time. He was replaced at Mercedes by Lewis Hamilton – and the rest is history.

Niki Lauda

F1 comebacks don't come any greater than Niki Lauda's. The Austrian memorably returned to the grid at the Italian Grand Prix in 1976, a mere six weeks after he narrowly escaped a terrifying accident at the Nurburgring. Lauda's car had gone up in flames when he crashed heavily at the German circuit. He had suffered burns and flame inhalation, and the situation looked so dire that he was given the last rites. But Lauda would not give up as he made his recovery, and when Formula 1 headed to Monza he was once again back in the Ferrari, despite his facial burns still being raw and painful. Incredibly the Austrian finished his first race back in fourth place, and remained in the title battle until he decided to withdraw from the wet Japanese Grand Prix, meaning rival James Hunt beat him to the World Championship victory by just one point. Lauda's stunning comeback is one of the reasons why the 1976 F1 season remains one of the most talked-about in the sport's history.

Kimi Raikkonen

Despite having a contract to remain with Ferrari for 2010 after three years with the team, Kimi Raikkonen parted ways with the Italian outfit at the end of 2009. He was replaced by Fernando Alonso. Rumours abounded that Raikkonen would return to McLaren, but ultimately he decided to quit F1 and try something completely different – rallying. The Iceman spent two years pursuing these other interests before making a Formula 1 comeback with the Lotus team in 2012. This move proved to be an inspired one; Raikkonen impressed upon his return and ended his first year back on the grid by claiming third place in the Drivers' Championship standings. His successful comeback led to Ferrari becoming interested in having the Finn back, and so he once again signed for the Scuderia in 2014. Raikkonen remained with the team until the end of 2018, a year in which he claimed his final F1 victory at the United States Grand Prix. A three-year stint with Alfa Romeo followed before the 2007 World Champion called time on his career in the sport at the close of 2021.

Nigel Mansell

Not all comebacks are bathed in glory. Nigel Mansell left Formula 1 at the end of 1992 after winning the World Championship, and went on to compete in IndyCar in 1993. The Briton made an unexpected return to F1 in 1994, when he drove four races for Williams following the tragic death of their driver Ayrton Senna. Initially things didn't go well for Mansell, with his first two appearances resulting in DNFs. However, in his final run for Williams at the Australian Grand Prix, the former champion took pole position before winning the race. Following this, Mansell signed for McLaren in 1995. But the car proved challenging, and after just two unsuccessful races, the Briton walked away from F1 for good.

Alain Prost

Some former World Champions have managed to match their previous success when returning to Formula 1. Alain Prost already had three world titles under his belt when his relationship with Ferrari soured towards the end of 1991, leading to his contract being terminated. The Frenchman spent the following season on the sidelines before making a comeback with Williams in 1993. Prost had lost none of his talent after a year out, and became World Champion for a fourth time in the 1993 season. But at the end of the year, he decided to retire from the sport. Before leaving, Prost and his long-time rival Ayrton Senna finally healed their rift; tragically Senna lost his life at Imola in the following year.

Robert Kubica

Robert Kubica – who debuted in F1 in 2006 – had shown his talent on numerous occasions when he entered the sport, and earned his first ever victory at the 2008 Canadian Grand Prix. After leaving BMW for Renault in 2010, Kubica continued to impress and was set to remain with the team in 2011. However, during the pre-season, Kubica suffered a huge accident whilst competing in a rally and was left with a partially severed arm and multiple fractures. It took one hour to remove Kubica from the car, and the first operation he underwent took seven hours. He has had at least 17 surgeries since. Whilst he suffered injuries to much of the right side of his body, it was the Pole's arm that was most severely affected. Incredibly, he was back in a rally car just 18 months later, but at the time he did not have enough movement in his wrist to be able to drive an F1 car again. By 2016, though, simulator work showed that he had made enough progress for a return to Formula 1 to become a possibility again. And so in 2019, Kubica made his long-awaited return to the sport with the Williams team. It was a brief comeback to the grid, with the former race winner leaving the British outfit after one season, but he remained involved with F1 afterwards, having acted in the position of reserve and test driver at Alfa Romeo.

Kevin Magnussen

Hulkenberg does not have to look far for inspiration on how to return to Formula 1 after a period of absence. His new teammate, Kevin Magnussen, became a last-minute addition to the 2022 grid after Haas dropped Nikita Mazepin in the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Magnussen had previously raced for the team between 2017 and 2020, before being replaced in 2021 when boss Guenther Steiner opted for a complete rookie line-up. The Dane went on to compete in other categories of motorsport such as sports cars. It was an impressive F1 return for Magnussen at the 2022 season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix, where a fifth-place finish resulted in Haas' first points since 2020. He went on to finish in the top 10 on six occasions during the campaign, and memorably scored a surprise debut pole position at the penultimate event of the season in Brazil.

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