Nico Hulkenberg wasn’t supposed to star in the 2020 Formula 1 season at all – but ended up playing a leading role at three grands prix when he stepped in as a substitute driver in place of Sergio Perez and then Lance Stroll at Racing Point.
On Thursday, Hulkenberg was announced as the official reserve driver at Aston Martin, which got our writers wondering about whether the 2010 Brazilian Grand Prix polesitter should or could make a full F1 return – and if Sebastian Vettel should be worried.
They give their verdicts below.
Only in an ideal world
Nico Hulkenberg’s 179 F1 starts are much more than most get, and while he’s definitely deserved to stick around for that long, it does sort of feel like his grand prix career has run its course.
Don’t get me wrong – it stinks that he’ll probably retire without an F1 podium, but there’s no cosmic necessity in him spinning his wheels in the midfield for another season, and the fact he got bested by Daniel Ricciardo at Renault in 2019 means it’s probably just about right that he didn’t end up in a top seat.
That said, his 2020 appearances feel like plenty of evidence to me that he’d prove as an instant upgrade for this year’s Aston Martin line-up. Which goes for both seats, by the way – what with Vettel’s ’20 having been shocking and Lance Stroll yet to regularly outperform any of the team-mates he’s had in F1.
In an ideal world, the ideal post-Sergio Perez Aston Martin line-up is probably something like Hulkenberg teaming up with George Russell. But F1, obviously, doesn’t work that way.
It doesn’t look good for Vettel
Nico Hulkenberg signing as reserve driver for Aston Martin tightens the thumbscrews on Sebastian Vettel just that little bit more.
Hulkenberg is also German, so aligns with any Aston Martin marketing in Germany. We all know he can step in and do a very impressive job. Yes, Hulkenberg hasn’t had a podium yet and Vettel has won four world championships, but Vettel also still needs to prove that he can still be that driver we saw in the Red Bull some eight years ago.
Vettel’s slide with Ferrari just seemed to accelerate. I like the guy and when he is on it he is as good as anyone else, but those days are in the long and distant past and now very seldom.
What I didn’t like was him coming on the radio and blaming Esteban Ocon for their coming together in Bahrain. It was obvious to anyone watching that he was the one that pulled in behind Ocon, lost downforce and hit him. He has made too many mistakes and doesn’t seem to have learned from them. When a driver gets to that situation, desperation is setting in.
He keeps saying the car doesn’t suit his driving style. But there’s 19 other drivers out there that would probably like some different characteristics from their cars and sometimes you must have to get on with it with what you have.
The answer for Vettel is simple – beat your team-mate both in performance and in racecraft and results, then you can complain about the tools you are given. If that doesn’t happen soon, The Hulk might just get his next opportunity at getting on the podium.
His absence is not injustice but is a shame
You can’t argue that Hulkenberg should get another F1 race seat through any sense of injustice because he’s had 10 full seasons and only 21 drivers in the history of the world championship have started more races. He had plenty of opportunity to cement his place on the grid for 2020 and ’21.
But just because you can’t contend it’s an injustice that he’s on the sidelines, there is still that tantalising pace that he has unleashed sporadically that was on show more consistently during his Hamilton-esque junior career.
That’s why I would like to see him back in an F1 seat, especially next year if Pirelli can deliver on the intention to produce less temperature-sensitive tyres that allow drivers to push more.
Hulkenberg never adapted as well to the tyre management demanded by the past decade of F1 as some. While that is a limitation of his skillset rather than a free pass for not fulfilling his prodigious potential – and the very best drivers adapt – he’d might be a different proposition were the tyres more robust.
So one last shot at F1, particularly in 2022, appeals. But if it doesn’t happen, there’s no reason to shed a tear because he has not lacked for opportunities. F1 is a results-based business and Hulkenberg results, relative to what his cars have been capable of, have been good but not extraordinary.
For every Korea 2013 or Interlagos 2010 piece of brilliance, there’s been a Germany 2019 or Singapore 2015 costly error – and in the case of Interlagos 2012, a grand prix he could have won, there was the extraordinary and the blundering in one race.
SUPER-SUB LIFE SUITS HIM
Banging the Racing Point third on the Silverstone grid at his second stand-in outing and coming from last to eighth on his short-notice Nurburgring call-up were two of Hulkenberg’s best F1 performances.
That’s a sign that this life of dropping in with no pressure or expectations and nothing to lose actually suits Hulkenberg pretty well, not that he needs to be back in F1 full-time.
For all the explosive talent he showed on his unstoppable rise through A1GP, Formula 3 and GP2, and all the promise of that Brazil pole lap in the damp in his rookie season with Williams, Hulkenberg didn’t fully capitalise on the best chances his full-time F1 career offered. Crashes on days that could’ve produced podiums became too much of a habit.
He was definitely good enough to win in F1 at his best, and any time he does get a call-up in the future will add a bit of excitement to that race. But nine full seasons on the grid – most of them in upper-midfield cars – was a very fair shot.
HE SHOULD’VE STAYED BUT SHOULDN’T COME BACK
Hulkenberg a driver who you wouldn’t talk out of a seat if he had one, but doesn’t necessarily command one of the ones that should be available.
Essentially I believe Hulkenberg should have stayed on the grid after 2019. Now that he’s disappeared I don’t see the route back. I wouldn’t argue his case over any of the present Mercedes, Red Bull, McLaren, Ferrari, Alpine or AlphaTauri drivers for various reasons.
That just leaves seats at Aston Martin (two), Alfa Romeo (two), Haas (one – Mick Schumacher’s Formula 2 champion) and Williams (one – George Russell is a nailed-on talent) that I think you’d argue Hulkenberg could or should have over the current incumbents.
But each of the Aston Martin drivers could be argued to have a bigger upside than Hulkenberg in different ways, whether that’s about commercial benefit, team security, prestige or potential. So Hulk’s not ousting either of those.
And of the four remaining seats – at three back-of-the-grid teams – I wouldn’t champion his return for the sake of driving any of those cars and I wouldn’t advocate that he would be a better choice over one of the many unproven talents, guys like Callum Ilott, Robert Shwartzman, Christian Lundgaard, Oscar Piastri, and a handful more.
That’s because while I accept Hulkenberg is one of the 20 best F1 drivers in the world, at some point overall current ability has to be weighed against the potential ability of others.
That’s where you sacrifice a good existing driver to try out a driver whose ability might be lower at present, but greater in the future.
Now he’s off the grid I think Hulkenberg is too vulnerable to that trade-off. If he’d never left, it would be different.