Hulkenberg had contested four F1 campaigns with the Silverstone-based outfit between 2012 and 2016, and left F1 at the end of last year after being replaced at Renault by Esteban Ocon.
Though highly-rated in F1 circles and a Le Mans 24 Hours winner, he also holds the record for most F1 starts without a podium.
Below, our writers offer their verdicts on Racing Point’s choice of replacement driver.
Team knowledge a big boost
Racing Point has made the right decision in bringing in Nico Hulkenberg. He has first-hand experience with the team, and the team with him, so fitting in and understanding each other’s requirements will happen invisibly.
It’s a bit like at the beginning of 1994 when Eddie Irvine was banned and Andrea de Cesaris drove for us for two races at Jordan. He fitted in quickly, having driven for us in 1991, and it meant we could just get on with the job in hand.
This is a big opportunity for Hulkenberg. He is currently without a drive but, in reality, he is only a little bit of pre-season testing and three races short of what the other drivers around him have had. He has current experience of the cars, so now he needs to make it work for himself. Forget Racing Point, if he drives for himself he can do a good job and with that the team will also benefit.
I have always said I would love to see the Hulk in a competitive car and now he has that opportunity. He might even get two races or more out of this and it could give him the chance to break his podium duck. – Gary Anderson
Limited chance will help Hulkenberg’s focus
Nico Hulkenberg has always had a huge amount of ability, and we’ve seen plenty of flashes of that brilliance during his Formula 1 career. But it’s fair to say he also hasn’t always done himself justice. Without a chance to get back in such as the one Racing Point has given him, that might have been set in stone as an evaluation of his F1 career.
Dropping in at the last minute is never an easy task, but he’s a relatively current driver with a wealth of experience who also knows the team well. But top drivers make the most of these opportunities and if Hulkenberg can ace it, which he is capable of, it could mark a career revival.
The downside of Hulkenberg has been that sometimes opportunities have been missed and mistakes have been made. He will have spent a long time reflecting on the possible end of his grand prix career, and that should have given him the razor-sharp focus needed to extract the maximum from this opportunity.
Given he is probably set for a second outing next weekend, he needs to use this weekend to acclimatise and settle in but use that experience to nail it second time out. It’s a big ask, but if he wants to revive his F1 career he needs to be at his best. Otherwise, this will simply be a coda to his story of unfulfilled promise. – Edd Straw
Dare to dream of a maiden podium
The stars are aligning too perfectly for me not to get carried away. Nico Hulkenberg, never scored an F1 podium and shunted out quite unceremoniously when he still had something to offer, back on the grid in a car capable of fighting for one on merit – arguably for the first time in his career.
There are all sorts of challenges associated with this opportunity and it’s by no means easy, as you’ll read elsewhere in this article. But why not choose to believe in fairytales?
This is a circuit he knows well, racing here 10 times since his debut at the track in GP2 more than 10 years ago. And circuit familiarity is an important element. It means an extra percentage of Hulk’s free-practice time will be allocated to performance building.
Plus, how far is he lagging behind his fellow drivers? Three grand prix weekends after a four-month absence, and just three days at Barcelona before that. That’s not a huge mileage deficit.
It’ll hurt him this weekend, almost certainly. But I’d expect a driver of his ability to have blown away most of the cobwebs by the end of FP2, if not the end of FP1.
Then it’s about improving on the finer details, which is admittedly the hardest part.
The beauty of this, though, is it’s probably not going to be a one-off. UK coronavirus isolation rules mean Perez is likely to miss next weekend as well. So the British GP could be viewed as a freebie to get up to speed, and even then Hulkenberg should still be sniping for a points finish at least.
Should he take part in the second Silverstone race, Hulkenberg will be improving from the first minute of FP1 today until the last lap of the 70th Anniversary Grand Prix. What a story it would be if that ended in a podium. – Scott Mitchell
Outing could prove a poisoned chalice
It’s great fairytale story, the return of the popular and talented Nico Hulkenberg, a golden opportunity in a car that looks sure to be super-competitive. Maybe even the chance to secure that podium that’s so pointedly missing from an F1 CV that covers 177 grand prix starts.
It’s a CV with some fantastic peaks – that pole for Williams at Interlagos, 2010, coming close to winning the same race a couple of years later for Force India – but somehow a missing ingredient. He’s the driver that was widely reckoned to be good for big success if only he could get his hands on a good car. But the big teams always shied away from him. Being out-performed at Renault last year by Daniel Ricciardo left him no place to be. But now, a golden opportunity. Redemption.
Or a poisoned chalice? Let’s just consider this for a moment. He’s eight months out of the cockpit, it’s a car totally unfamiliar to him, way more aerodynamically powerful than anything he’s driven before around a track where downforce has a huge effect, a circuit where the sustained g-forces are enormous.
He’s going to be measured against a team-mate in Stroll of low reputation but who is actually probably only a couple of tenths shy of a true ace’s pace in Perez, and who is fully keyed into the car after a winter’s testing and three grand prix weekends.
Hulkenberg’s acclimatisation to all those aforementioned factors could easily cost him more than a couple of tenths. He could quite feasibly come out of this weekend with a dented rather than enhanced reputation. Not saying that’s definitely what will happen, but it could.
At least he can look upon this opportunity as a two-race project, however. Lessons learned this weekend, and more simulator time in between, suggest that next week’s 70th Anniversary Grand Prix will probably represent a more accurate representation of his potential in the ‘pink Mercedes’. – Mark Hughes
Perilous for Stroll
In 2014, Andre Lotterer was drafted in to replace Kamui Kobayashi at Caterham for the Belgian Grand Prix, and went on to outqualify the team’s regular driver Marcus Ericsson by nearly a second.
It was in the wet, and Ericsson had matched Lotterer in practice before struggling to get a clean lap in in qualifying – but still, it was not a good look for the affable and overall underrated Swede.
It didn’t do long-term harm to Ericsson’s career, but Lance Stroll would surely love to avoid a similar episode regardless, especially given all the discussion of whether he warrants his place should his team recruit Sebastian Vettel for 2021.
Perez has been favourite to potentially make way for Vettel, but has also had the measure of his Racing Point’s team-mate Stroll during their time together.
Stroll’s stellar, Perez-beating performance in Hungary should provide him with some positive momentum and will be a boost to his reputation – but all of these will be negated if he doesn’t convincingly see off Hulkenberg, having vastly more experience in the RP20 and with Hulkenberg having not raced beyond the virtual world in 2020. – Valentin Khorounzhiy
Another blow to young F1 hopefuls
Formula 1 teams should be mandated to use a junior reserve driver, and the Perez situation reinforces the argument perfectly.
While compacted testing schedules may have been necessary to keep the playing field even and costs down in F1, this has eroded the time young drivers are able to get out on track.
Stories like that of Alex Albon – who entered F1 with barely any F1 experience under his belt – prove there’s a lot of talent lower down, but that more should be done to help it emerge and gain vital experience.
If a Formula 1 team has to bench a driver – the Perez situation being a very rare occurrence indeed – in at least the first race of that absence it should be mandated that a junior driver races – if indeed that junior agrees.
You just can’t replicate race weekend experience and if F1 is serious about its next generation, more must be done to give them a chance.
Three of the top four in the Formula 2 championship – for example – would have to pull double duty this weekend in Silverstone, but have earned a superlicence and are capable. FIA Formula 3 champion Robert Shwartzman, European F3 champion Mick Schumacher and prodigious talent Christian Lundgaard are all there. Louis Deletraz and Jack Aitken would also be available.
I don’t blame Racing Point for going with a tried and trusted option in Hulkenberg, and I’m not advocating there’s a junior that would necessarily do a better job than him.
But if it was mandated that Racing Point and all other teams had to use a junior in cases like that of Perez, it would be for the good of the future of the sport. – Jack Benyon