A driver’s career in Formula One can often be plotted by just a handful of pivotal moments; and in these brief instants in time destinies are forged or forgotten.
Last September Force India broke with their practice of offering their drivers only one year contracts when they signed up Nico Hülkenberg until the end of 2017. Bob Fernley explained to Autosport the reasoning behind this decision. “Nico signing for another two years was all about continuity from our side, to be able to keep a team together that is obviously now a successful partnership,” but Fernley went on to imply the team wouldn’t stand in Hülkenberg’s way were a top team to come calling for his services.
It’s interesting to note that despite finishing well ahead of his German team mate in the 2015 driver standings, Sergio Pérez has not been offered a similar two year deal, though Fernley admits, “Clearly the podium from Sergio was the high point of 2015.”
Signing Hülkenberg up for two years is hardly a risky proposition for Force India and the two year deal does give them the opportunity to claim compensation from any potential suitor who may come calling for Nico.
Hülkenberg has been consistently rated by F1 pundits as a driver who is punching below his potential weight and much of his early reputation was formed during his winning year in GP2. In 2009 Hülkenberg partnered Pastor Maldonado in the ART team and he claimed his first victory at the Nürburgring in the first of the two races that weekend. With the GP2 race one top eight drivers inverted to form the grid, Hülkenberg started eighth for the second race of the weekend.
Nico went on to win the sprint race too became the first driver to do the weekend double since Giorgio Pantano at Monza in the 2006 season. In doing so, he became only the second GP2 driver at that time to have completed the clean sweep, with pole position, two fastest laps and two wins; Nelson Piquet, Jr. achieved this at the Hungaroring in 2006. Hülkenberg clinched the title with two races to spare.
The German immediately seized this moment and was offered his opportunity in Formula One. At the time this was something of a formality for the winner of the GP2 series to get a race seat in the big boy’s cars. However, only Pastor Maldonado and Romain Grosjean – winners in 2010-11 – have since made this same transition.
Another of those moments came for Hülkenberg in his rookie year in F1 and he grabbed it with both hands. During inclement conditions at the Brazilian GP, Nico found himself claiming pole position – the Williams team’s first pole position since the 2005 European Grand Prix. For those who felt Hülkenberg may have been lucky and merely on track at the perfect moment in time, the German completed a second lap after securing pole position and increased his gap to the rest of the field.
The Williams wasn’t competitive the following day, and Hülkenberg saw his lead disappear and he finished down the points in eighth place. Despite this headline success, Williams let Hülkenberg go and he found himself having to step down and take over the Force India test driver role from Paul di Resta for who had been promoted to replace Vitantonio Liuzzi.
Hülkenberg regained a race drive with Force India in 2012 when fellow countryman Adrian Sutil was ‘rested’ for glassing a team member in an Asian nightclub and so Hülkenberg once again seized another important moment at the season opener in Australia. He out qualified di Resta, though Nico’s race was to end following damage at turn one. That season Hülkenberg finished the year 17 points ahead of his teammate, out-qualifying him 12 times to Di Resta’s eight.
Sauber came calling for Nico and the Swiss team were on the up having secured two podiums in 2012 and finished ahead of Force India in the constructors’ race. However, Nico’s luck appeared to be running out. Having not received his full dues from Force India, Sauber were to run into financial trouble too and the promise of the previous year faded away as the Swiss outfit finished behind Force India in the final rankings. Hülkenberg rejoined Force India for 2014 season.
This move was inspired as Sauber almost collapsed in 2014 and finished only ahead of Caterham who failed to even attend two of the races. Force India were on the up and in 2015 the team achieved their best ever championship position of fifth place.
Yet despite the promise, the moments of magic and the expectation amongst the pundits, Nico Hülkenberg is still driving for a midfield team. Further, despite Fernley’s complimentary sentiments about not standing in the German driver’s way should a top team come calling, is this really likely to happen now?
Hülkenberg is 29 this year and the paddock talk of top teams chasing driver signatures does not include his name any more. Max Verstappen is the name on everyone’s lips and it appears Hülkenberg moments of opportunity have been and gone.
There appeared to be a real chance that for 2014 Ferrari would sign Nico Hülkenberg as a replacement for Felipe Massa. Certain well placed Italian sources even stated a pre-contract had been agreed between Maranello and the German driver because around this time Fernando Alonso was most vocal about Ferrari’s failings and the president Luca di Montezemolo was concerned the Spaniard may leave the team and Ferrari would be stranded requiring two new drivers.
Yet this doomsday scenario failed to materialise along with the fact that Kimi Räikkönen became available – and the Finn was weld in high regard by the then Ferrari team Principal Stefano Domenicali.
It appeared that this particular moment for Nico – just came and went, without fault of his own.
Bob Fernley concludes the matter well. “It would be nice for Nico to be able to progress to what I think his talent deserves and I think a lot of people in the paddock believe that too. But as we know in Formula 1 the opportunities are very limited, so let’s just hope one of those opportunities comes for him.”