Formula 1

Hulkenberg’s chance to right a great wrong

Jul 31 2020
By Edd Straw

Nico Hulkenberg’s opportunity with Racing Point is not just a chance to reignite his Formula 1 career, but also to get rid of the unwanted record of starting more world championship races without finishing on the podium than anyone else – 177, to be precise.

This fact is often used to condemn him. But reverse the premise and you can also argue he’s one of the best to have significant F1 careers but never get on the podium, which is why it would be fitting if he can pull off the unlikely feat of a top three at Silverstone.

It’s a long-shot given his lack of preparation, and realistically he needs to use the British Grand Prix to acclimatise, but having squandered chances in the past he has no choice but to make the most of this one.

Nico Hulkenberg Racing Point British Grand Prix practice 2020

Podium finishes are a blunt instrument when it comes to measuring drivers. Hulkenberg has been a perpetual F1 midfielder – with Williams, Force India, Sauber and Renault – but only four times did a team-mate of his reach the podium.

On all four occasions, it was the man he is filling-in for, Sergio Perez, at Force India. That’s very different from a driver who has a run in regular podium-contending machinery but never makes it.

In fact, no driver has started as many F1 races as Hulkenberg (177 so far) without ever sitting in a race-winning car. The ‘Pink Mercedes’ he has now been given access to is certainly the fastest, and also the most competitive, car he has ever driven in F1.

For Hulkenberg, a podium finish required confluence of factors, some well beyond the driver’s control, to align. In their three years together, Hulkenberg finished ahead of Perez fractionally more frequently when both finished (23-22) – so a ‘fair’ split would have given them two podiums each. Indeed, Hulkenberg only lost a podium in Monaco 2016 to Perez thanks to a strategic blunder and slow pitstop.

Sergio Perez Nico Hulkenberg Force India Brazilian Grand Prix 2016 Interlagos

But results don’t get handed out like that. Perez’s differing skillset played a part in him being the one to take some of those podiums because he’s always been a driver for the unusual day. On several occasions he showcased his outstanding management of Pirelli rubber, controlling the tyre slip, beautifully extending stints – something that Hulkenberg could not match.

Perez’s way is more compatible with the kinds of opportunities that present themselves to midfield cars. That doesn’t mean it’s easier, but if you’re going to try to batter a midfield car into a leading result on pace, you’re going to butt heads with the laws of physics. And they bend for no-one. Hulkenberg, when things are right, is more about extreme pace.

The best also have a knack of nailing it when it matters –  but Hulkenberg has too often found ways to fall short

Hulkenberg’s special drives – and there have been those eminently worth of podiums – have been a little different. His stunning fourth place for Sauber in the 2013 Korean Grand Prix is a case in point, coming out on top in battles with Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso to take an astonishing result.

Had one of the three who finished ahead dropped out, he’d have had a podium and this whole debate would be rendered moot, but it wouldn’t have made a sensational drive any better.

He also turned in one of the great frustrated drives of the 21st century in the 2012 Brazilian Grand Prix, in which he would certainly have either won or finished second in after he and Jenson Button pulled a huge advantage on slicks in the damp but for a safety car.

Hulkenberg then made a cack-handed attempt to retake the lead from Lewis Hamilton that put the McLaren driver out and earned him a penalty. That one race captures the duality of Hulkenberg – genius followed by a needless blunder.

Nico Hulkenberg Lewis Hamilton Brazilian Grand prix 2012 crash F1 Interlagos McLaren Force India

None of this is to excuse Hulkenberg his failings. The speed is undeniable, but there have been too many mistakes over his career and there’s a reason he earned a reputation with many team bosses as not being the right person to lead a team.

The best also have a knack of nailing it when it matters –  but Hulkenberg has too often found ways to fall short, with last year’s German GP crash a case in point.

Yes, many drivers went off at the last corner, yes many struggled with the slick surface when they did, but this was Hulkenberg’s ‘commeth the hour’ moment and he blew it. Hulkenberg has made more mistakes in promising positions than he should have done over his career and that’s on him.

But there have also been other moments of magic. His pole position at the 2010 Brazilian Grand Prix for Williams was sensational but often misremembered as fortuitous. Yet he set two laps good enough for pole position on slicks in the damp so the rest running in that Q3 session had every chance to beat him and most of them were in better cars. Breathtaking.

Nico Hulkenberg Williams Brazil pole position F1 2010 Interlagos

Of all the drivers who have raced in F1 without a podium, Hulkenberg is the one who had that dash of something special to pull a sensational performance out of the bag. Interlagos 2010/2012 and Korea 2013 stand as monuments to that, just as his failure to capitalise on other opportunities shows there’s also a weakness there that has held him back.

Almost by definition, the list of drivers who had significant grand prix careers, 25 or more starts, yet never made the podium is filled with a combination of those who never had the speed to be top-three finishers on merit or who had some flaw of flaws that meant they fell short. Many will claim they didn’t have the right opportunity, some might accept there were also reasons for that – just as there are reasons why Hulkenberg never quite got his top-team shot.

Pierluigi Martini Minardi Portuguese Grand Prix 1991 Estoril

There are some very capable drivers who racked up the starts without making the podium. Hulkenberg’s former team-mate, Adrian Sutil, was a very handy midfield performer who excelled in the wet but without ever quite reaching the heights Hulkenberg occasionally ascended. Pierluigi Martini (pictured above), who started 119 grands prix largely in Minardi machinery, is another strong contender given he, briefly, led a grand prix, while Jonathan Palmer was both an F3 and F2 champion who turned in some good drives in limited machinery and, like the other drivers mentioned, had a best finish of fourth.

Hulkenberg is capable of being stunningly fast, with flashes of brilliance. But thanks to a combination of his own limitations and the stars never quite aligning, he never had his day of days

Any of those drivers would have been worthy of podium finishes in F1, just as Hulkenberg would. Certainly, less accomplished drivers achieved that feat. This is what makes the record for starts without a podium such a difficult one to interpret.

But what most of them share – or, at least, those whose careers weren’t cut short by an accident – is that, like Hulkenberg, they have some asterisks by their name. Some are still active, so the story isn’t yet complete, while others had the pace but not the application, the opportunity but not the success or never quite convinced those in positions to do so to give them a big chance.

Nico Hulkenberg Sauber Korean Grand Prix 2013

Perhaps that makes Hulkenberg the perfect standard-bearer for this group of nearly-men, whose finest hours were, at best, finishing fourth. They all had their strengths and their limitations that ensured they never quite cracked it but ultimately did have enough opportunity to have changed their destiny.

Hulkenberg is capable of being stunningly fast, with flashes of brilliance. But thanks to a combination of his own limitations and the stars never quite aligning, he never had his day of days.

It would be fitting if Hulkenberg could parlay this unexpected chance into a visit to the podium, which is not impossible given the pace of the Racing Point – particularly once he’s used the first race weekend as a sighter and assuming he gets a second outing.

If he did so, it would be a reminder of what he’s capable of at his only sporadically-seen best. The trouble is, it would be equally fitting if he squandered it. That’s the frustrating reality of Hulkenberg.

Nico Hulkenberg Lewis Hamilton collision Brazilian Grand Prix 2012 Interlagos

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