Nico Hulkenberg a favourite with many Formula One fans is set for a shock return to the sport in 2023. The German driver is only one of six every to win the GP2/F2 series in his first season and last raced in the sport full time during the 2019 season. Despite 181 GP starts over 9 full time seasons between 2010 and 2019 Hulkenberg famously never made it on to the podium.
Nico first raced in F1 for William’s in 2010 but even though he claimed the team’s first pole position for 5 years he was not retained for the following year.
The first of the “come back King’s” return to the sport came in 2012 when he stepped up from the Force India reserved driver role to join Paul Di Resta with a full race seat.
Hulkenberg was dropped by the Silverstone based team for 2013 and raced for Sauber alongside Esteban Gutierrez before returning to Force India in 2014.
The Hulk left for Renault in 2017 and was replaced in 2020 by Esteban Ocon. He returned that year to fill in for Racing Point (the old Force India outfit) and deputised for a Covid positive Sebastian Vettel twice at the start of the 2022 season.
In the second of those races he finished ahead of the Aston Martin permanent driver Lance Stroll.
Now paddock sources believe Hulkneberg is set for a return for 2023. Sky F1’s Rachel Brooks revealed the German is now the strong favourite to replace the outgoing Mick Schumacher at Haas F1.
“Nico Hulkneberg would be a stop gap solution if they [Haas] think there’s somebody else down the line in 2024,” mused Karen Chandhock.
“There’s a still moving parts. The seat at Alpha Tauri, we know Gasley has a contract. Does he move on? If so who will fill that,” the Indian commentator concluded.
Of course Alpine are the road block which will need to be finalised before the other team’s know who is available. Alpine are not known to lavish cash on their drivers and they would have to pay Red Bull big money to release Gasly from their driver line up.
A stop gap solution for the French team would be either Nico Hulkenberg or Daniel Ricciardo because the Aussie has been paid his 2023 contractual $12m to leave McLaren. Unusually McLaren don’t appear to have forced the Honey Badger into gardening leave for next year, so he could drive for Renault/Alpine and cost them nothing.
His previous season in 2020 for the Enstone team saw Ricciardo deliver strong results. Gasly would be out of contract and free to move to Alpine in 2024.
When Renault rebranded to Alpine CEO Laurent Rossi explained the targets he was setting for the team.
“We have a long-term project, the objective is to reach a level of competitiveness that places us on the podium as many times as possible in 2024,” Rossi said.
“From today in fifth, you can easily find a roadmap. It’s going to be every year a bit better.
“It’s a 100-race project, four years, four seasons.”
Of course Alpine won a rain affected race in Hungary last season with Alonso holding up Lewis Hamilton to allow his team mate Ocon to take the win.
But on the whole the team underperformed with their only other podium almost 2 years into ‘the project’ being for Fernando Alonso gaining a P3 in Qatar 2021.
This year, the soon to depart Fernando Alonso has scored their highest place with a P5 in Belgium, so the team need an experienced driver to join them and improve results for Rossi’s plan.
Chandhock nailed his colours to the mast over Alpine’s decision stating, “If they can’t get Gasly, if I was Alpine I’d make a huge effort to get Daniel [Ricciardo] back. He did such a strong job for them in 2019 and particularly in 2020.”
“He was incredibly quick. For whatever reason it hasn’t worked for him at McLaren. Yes his confidence has taken a knock but I don’t see the logic why you would take a Jack Doohan over Daniel for next year.”
“Jack probably needs another year in F2 and he’ll be ready for [F1] racing the year after.”
Either Gasly, Hulkneberg or Ricciardo fit the bill, though if the Renault hierarchy still hold grudges against Ricciardo for leaving in 2021 – and Gasly is not released, then Hulkenberg may well find himself with an upgraded opportunity to drive for Alpine instead of the rumoured Haas present.
— BWT Alpine F1 Team (@AlpineF1Team) September 6, 2022