From Cologne to the Cockpit: The Hulk shines in Germany
Nico Hulkenberg proves his worth at the Nurburgring, despite no practice. Does this show why he deserves a seat in 2021?
When Nico Hulkenberg woke up last Saturday morning, I'm sure there were a few things on his mind. Meeting his friend for coffee in Cologne that morning for example, or doing some broadcasting work with German channel RTL that evening at the Nurburgring. I would guess that the possibility of actually competing in that weekend's Eifel Grand Prix wouldn't have crept in as a thought, although he was probably wishing he was on the grid for F1's return to the ring. However, he eventually would be. This is the story of how the German not only ended up competing, but having an astonishing race as well and once again showing to us why it is a shame he isn't on the grid full time.
Whilst enjoying said coffee with his friend in Cologne at 11 am last Saturday while his F1 colleagues geared up for the final free practice only an hour away, a familiar name came up on Nico's phone. It was Racing Point team principal Otmar Szafnauer; regular driver Lance Stroll had fallen ill prior to the session and it was clear the Canadian would not be fit to continue the weekend. Hulkenberg, who stood in for his former teammate Sergio Perez last August when the Mexican tested positive for COVID-19 at Silverstone, was the team's choice.
However, this time would be different, whereas the rest of the drivers had the advantage of an hour's running on Saturday morning (Friday's practice sessions were a no-go after heavy rain and fog.), Hulkenberg now had to make the dash to the circuit, get tested and cleared and get ready to jump straight into qualifying, with no practice at all. Equipped with his gorgeous Porsche 911 GT2 RS, I've no doubt that he may have made it in less than an hour to the circuit, while a quick test cleared the German en route to the paddock.
Jumping straight into qualifying and trying to get out of Q1 was virtually impossible for Hulkenberg to be able to achieve, having only had a handful of laps around the circuit in the RP20 before a final blast around in the dying seconds of the session. Sure, he may have qualified last but remember, in that handful of laps he had, he came within four-tenths of actually getting through, against drivers who had a whole hour's worth of track time. I find this very impressive but sure, you can say he was in a quick car or whatever, but dumping Hulkenberg into a car he hadn't driven around that circuit before was a bit like when Valentino Rossi tested with Ferrari. You don't expect him to be as good, but he was very impressive. Hulkenberg was definitely impressive.
Sunday would prove a much more daunting task. Starting last and once again, against teams and drivers who had at least an hour to prepare and develop some form of strategy going into the race, Nico had no solid data, only that from the sister car of Perez. However, he would excel.
Throughout the race, Hulkenberg would calmly move his way up through the field, eventually taking eighth at the chequered flag. This result, combined with Perez's fourth position, moved Racing Point up to third overall in the constructor's standings and surely gave the pink panthers something to smile about Sunday evening. It is quite remarkable to think that this was achieved by a driver that had literally got into the car Saturday as qualifying began, to staying up most of the night in order to be ready and comfortable on Sunday and still come home in the points.
This is the third time Hulkenberg has replaced a driver in 2020, previously replacing Sergio Perez during the Silverstone double-header in August. (FIA.)
Sure, you could argue that he was familiar with the car due to racing it in Silverstone two months ago, but two months is a lot to be out of an F1 car, both physically and mentally, especially when you look at the tightness of the current calendar. Hulkenberg himself actually commented over the weekend how different the car felt due to the upgrades being applied to the RP20 in the time between Silverstone and the Nurburgring. In a sport where split seconds can sometimes define champions, two months must be like an eternity.
After the race, Red Bull driver advisor Dr Helmut Marko revealed the team actually had Hulkenberg on standby themselves after regular driver Alex Albon initially returned an inconclusive COVID-19 test prior to the weekend, Marko later revealed in a recent interview with German channel Sport1 that Hulkenberg, along with Perez, is potentially being considered for a Red Bull drive in 2021 should Albon fail to retain his seat.
Although I can't see the reality of Red Bull turning it's back on Albon, I do believe it's time for Hulkenberg to return, as I didn't agree it was right for him to be ousted from Renault last year. I cannot see an Albon/Gasly swap in fear that Gasly might not perform like last year if that RB16 is tricky to drive, but somebody like Hulkenberg or Perez would, in my opinion, give Max a bit more of a run for his money in the same car.
Hulkenberg on his way to eighth during Sunday's Eifel Grand Prix at the Nurburgring.
I can't realistically see these two in a Red Bull next year however, but it is something to ponder on. However, one team that could benefit from either driver would be Haas, who has made it no secret that it is looking to change its driver line-up for 2021. Just like the points I made for Perez in last week's article, Hulkenberg brings sponsorship in the form of European vehicle inspection company DEKRA, experience from a career that has expanded across nine seasons of F1, the ability to work well with a team and it's second driver, and impressive showings on-track. Yeah, maybe he never got a podium in F1, but I think some of this just comes down to bad luck and there is no denying he came close quite a few times.
After last weekend's performance and Hulkenberg's ability to just jump in and go, as he's proven twice this year so far, will definitely put him at the top of the list of potential candidates for an F1 drive next season. It does not phase me what team signs him, but I will be happy to see if a team does decide to take him on. There are some drivers worthy of a drive in F1, but very few that have proven themselves at the pinnacle of motorsport, Nico Hulkenberg has definitely proven himself after last weekend.