Overrated. Had His Chances, or unlucky, never getting the drive that he deserved? These are some of the few phrases that sum up Nico Hulkenberg. The German driver, known for being one of the friendliest drivers on the F1 decade, has departed the sport. The former Renault driver took part in 179 Grand Prix’s over his decade in the sport, and, in his words, he is “happy and relieved for it to be over”. It sounds like when Hulkenberg turned down his one-year contract extension with Renault, it wasn’t due to the fact that he was holding out for Haas or Red Bull, but the fact that the German was no longer enjoying the sport, and, like many greats have said, there is no point in continuing if you aren’t enjoying it anymore.
Nico Hulkenberg was born in August, 1987 in West Germany. Before expressing an interest in karting, Hulkenberg was training to follow his father's footsteps in becoming freight forwarding agent at his father's company.
Hulkenberg came up the ranks at around the same time, or just after the likes of Sebastian Vettel, Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton. He was quick to assert himself as a promising talent at the age of fifteen when he was fifteen, winning the German Karting Junior Championship, and the year after winning the whole Karting Championship.
This caught the attention of Willi Weber. For those of you who don’t know who this man is, he was the longtime manager of Michael and Ralf Schumacher. After seeing Hulkenberg dominate the German Karting Championship at the age of sixteen he predicted that Hulkenberg would be ready for Formula One in five years time for the 2008 season, at the age of twenty. He stated that he reminded him of M. Schumacher when he was karting, and later acknowledged that he was the one who gave Nico the nickname of ‘The Hulk’, in reference to Hülkenberg changing his personality whilst at the wheel.
And so the German, along with his new manager, embarked on the road to Formula One. In 2005, he made the jump to single seat racing, and immediately won the Formula BMW Championship, however was stripped of the win after it was claimed he had brake-tested his rivals during a safety car period. We have to idea whether this was true, but it would have been interesting to hear whether it was like the Vettel/Hamilton fracas at Baku in 2017.
But I think it was when he moved to the A1 GP series in 2006 when we realised that this guy could be a future Formula One World Champion. He won a whopping nine races in his rookie season, immediately making him the most successful driver in the discipline in just one season, and single handedly won the championship for Team Germany, with him scoring 126 points for the team, compared to Andre Lotterers’s 2.
And then he started climbing the ranks of the seeder Formula’s to Formula One. The German joined the German F3 series, finishing fifth despite missing races for the A1 series in 2006. In 2007, he continued his ascent, moving to the European F3 series, where claimed four wins in his debut season for ART Racing. In the end the German finished third behind Sebastian Buemi and eventual champion Romain Grosjean.
He continued racing in the F3 Euro Series for 2008, with his team-mate now being Jules Bianchi. At the age of 19 now, Hulkenberg dominated the series, scoring nearly double the amount of points compared to second placed Eduardo Mortara, taking seven wins, continuing his rise to Formula One. He had missed his managers target of making Formula One for 2008, but he wasn’t far off at all.
In fact Hulkenberg had first tested a F1 car in 2007 for Williams. For the 2008 season, it was thought that Weber and Renault team-principal Flavio Briatore had come to the conclusion that Hulkenberg would race for the French team where he ended his career in 2008, however the McLaren saga with Alonso meant that Hulkenberg was shut out.
During the Williams test, he was only 0.4 seconds a lap slower than Williams team-leader Nico Rosberg and faster than Kazuki Nakajima. This strong performance at Williams led to him being signed as a test driver for the 2008 season, and continued that role in 2009, in addition to taking up the reserve driver role.
However we must not forget the 2009 GP2 Season. It was Hulkenberg’s first season in the seeder that was only inferior to Formula One, and yet, racing for ART once again, he took five wins in his rookie season, winning the championship by twenty-five points. He beat the likes of Vitaly Petrov, Pastor Maldonado, Lucas Di Grassi, Jerome D’Ambrosio and Kamui Kobayashi with relative ease, and this was enough for Williams to sign the German for the 2010 season at the age of 22. Heck, at one point after Luca Badoer's failure at Ferrari, Hulkenberg was considered for the final five races of the season with Ferrari. What a debut that would have been.
Finally, after six years in single seater motor racing, Hulkenberg was in.
Formula One: 2010-2019
He finished a decent fourteenth in his first season, behind his team-mate Rubens Barrichello, but took a stunning pole in changeable conditions at Brazil, something of which F1 still remembers to this day. The characteristics of the car meant that Hulkenberg was often able to make it into Q3, racing alongside the likes of the Renault’s and occasionally one of the big three, but struggled with the race pace, meaning scoring points became a difficulty. Nevertheless, a P6 in Hungary was a big highlight for Williams and the German after qualifying eleventh.
Yet despite this, Hulkenberg was harshly introduced into constructor politics immediately. The German was offered a multi-year deal with Williams - great, except for the fact that he would be driving for the HRT team in 2011, who were stuck to the bottom of the grid. Williams wanted to do this because they could bring in Crashtor Maldonado and the money he brought to the team so they could develop into a top team once again.
Hulkenberg refused, hoping to get a seat with Lotus or Force India, but in the end got the test/reserve role at Force India for 2011, competing on sixteen weekends in Free Practice, enough to get him into Force India for the 2012 season. The Force India was a step-up for Hulkenberg, with the team in 2011 in an intense battle with Renault for fifth in the constructors championship. It was interestingly here when he parted with his long-time manager Weber, due to his loss of a seat in the 2011 season.
In the 2012 season, Hulkenberg started to pick up his knack for consistent points finishes. He beat his then team-mate Paul Di Resta, finishing eleventh in the championship. More impressively, Hulkenberg claimed three top five finishes, including a fourth place at Spa.
But the biggest moment of the 2012 season was the finale in Brazil, where Hulkenberg led for over twenty laps in the chaotic race. The German would have certainly been on for a podium alongside the McLaren if he hadn’t got tangled up with back-markers whilst defending from Lewis Hamilton. This was Hulkenberg’s first chance of taking a podium, but nevertheless, he still finished P5.
But Hulkenberg's team-hopping continued into 2013, this time moving to the competitive Sauber, who had previously scored three podiums in 2012 from Sergio Perez, with Perez going the other way. In later interviews, Hulkenberg stated that this was his biggest regret in his Formula One career, with the German eventually returning to Force India for three more seasons later in his career.
Unfortunately it seemed that Sauber had peaked in the 2012 season. Alongside Gutierrez, Hulkenberg finished in the top ten for the first time in his career in the drivers championship, claiming another P4, this time in Korea. He scored 51 points, compared to Gutierrez's 6. The highlight for Hulkenberg’s season would have probably been the Italian Grand Prix. He qualified a seriously strong P3, in which he later described as ‘the perfect lap’, and even more impressively he was able to hold a P5 finish despite a duo of Mercedes drivers close behind him.
It was also in the 2013 season when there was a strong speculation that Hulkenberg could be on the way up to Ferrari. The German was reportedly ‘an inch’ away from joining the Tifosi, in what would have been a career-changing move, but instead they opted for Kimi Raikkonen, their last World Champion.
For the 2014 season, Hulkenberg moved back to Force India, who were preparing for the new regulations. During his three-year stint at the team, Force India dominated the midfield, with Hulkenberg finishing in the top nine of each season, with the team progressing each year thanks to the consistent scoring of Hulkenberg and Perez, finishing sixth, fifth, and fourth in the Constructors Championship.
Some of the highlights included a run of 12 races where Hulkenberg scored points. At one point in the 2014 championship, Hulkenberg was P3 after having scored 36 points in three races. During his 58 races in this stint of his career, Hulkenberg scored two out of three times every three races, finishing in the top six twelve of those times.
In 2015, there were once again rumours that Hulkenberg might go to Ferrari for the 2016 season after Kimi Raikkonen failed to register a win whilst his team-mate Vettel scored three, but once again that door was shut for Hulkenberg.
A highlight must have been when he started on the front row in the 2016 Austrian Grand Prix alongside Lewis Hamilton after a wet qualifying session, but a gearbox problem ruled him out for competing for a podium.
But in 2016, Hulkenberg came to the conclusion that now at the age of 28, that he needed to join a team that could potentially rise to the top with the new regulations coming in for the 2017 season. He was apparently a contender for replacing Nico Rosberg at Mercedes, but the late notice meant that Bottas was selected instead.
Hulkenberg took a gamble. He joined Renault for the 2017 season. The French manufacturer had just returned after a five year hiatus from the sport, and despite finishing ninth in the constructors championship, made the bold claim that in five years time they would be winning championships.
In 2017, he pretty much single handedly brought the team up to sixth in the constructors championship, finishing in the top six 20% of the time that season. It was in the 2017 season that another shot for taking a podium slipped through his fingers. After the fracas of the opening lap in Singapore, Hulkenberg was running in P3, and was looking set for his first podium with strong pace compared to the Mercedes’s, but a mechanical forced him to retire from a podium position once again like Austria the year before.
However the 2018 season arguably brought the best season ever for Nico Hulkenberg. Now the leader of a team, he brought Renault up to fourth in the constructors championship with the help of Carlos Sainz, with the French manufacturer defeating Haas for fourth, becoming the new kings of the midfield after Force India folded into Racing Point.
During this season, the Renault car was plagued by reliability problems, similar to those of Red Bull’s in that season, who were also running the Renault engine. Ironically it would have been a better season for the French constructor if they weren’t running their own engine. Nevertheless, Hulkenberg finished in the top six in that season 30% of the time, with the highlight of the season being a P5 at his home race in Germany. He finished seventh in the championship, his best result to this date, continuing his run of seven seasons in the top ten despite being in midfield cars.
And we know the story of the 2019 season: flashes of brilliance in Australia, Canada, France and Italy, but a season plagued by the German Grand Prix, where Hulkenberg had the best chance of taking a podium at his home race.
But I think we’ve overlooked one major achievement in Nico Hulkenberg’s career - he won the 24 Hours Of Le Mans.
In only his second WEC race alongside Nick Tandy and Earl Babmer, Hulkenberg won the greatest race in the world, something of which is as good as an F1 podium if you ask me.
He'll be remembered for having a level-head whilst racing, showcasing experience even when he was a rookie, and being one of the nicest drivers in the paddock, and of course for being the best driver to have never scored a podium in Formula One.