British Grand Prix – Sergio Perez’s misfortune by contracting COVID-19 has handed Nico Hulkenberg, an F1 exile, his best chance at a Formula 1 podium.
A few months ago, in Abu Dhabi, Nico Hulkenberg walked away from his Renault for the last time. Unsure of what the future held, and whether he’d ever get to drive a Formula 1 car again. It all seemed a bit of a waste – Hulkenberg has been a solidly consistent performer for years on end, but never quite seemed to be able to make the results stick when they counted. He holds the unenviable record of the most Grands Prix appearances without a podium finish in a career stretching back a decade.
But it appeared Nico choked under the weight of expectation. His most outstanding drives were for lower positions, such as his tremendous Korean Grand Prix in 2013 where he held off relentless attacks from behind to take his career best finish of fourth. But, running in the top three, something would go wrong. Crashing out of Brazil 2010 while in contention for the win was an early marker, but it was Germany 2019 that sealed his fate. With Renault humming and hawing over whether to continue with him for a third consecutive season, or to take a gamble on Esteban Ocon, Hulkenberg found himself running P3 in the rain in Germany. All he had to do was keep his pace up and keep it on the road, and a home podium was probable. Instead, a slight error, running his front wheel over the kerb in the stadium section was enough to send him skittering across the escape area and into the barriers. It was a career ending moment, and Hulkenberg knew it as he morosely walked away to a steward’s hut to be by himself.
F1 has moved on since then. The coronavirus outbreak and subsequent F1 calendar gutting has meant that the normal focus on the driver market hasn’t been there and, with Ferrari and McLaren quickly confirming their driver line-ups after the surprise dropping of Sebastian Vettel, it appeared the door was shut on Hulkenberg for a comeback. Ricciardo’s departure from Renault was never likely to result in the team immediately re-signing a driver they’d just dropped, so it really did appear like all hope was lost for Hulkenberg.
But he hadn’t lost faith. He has publicly said that he wants to find a way back into F1 and has kept up his training with the hope of finding an opportunity. He’s scheduled to race a Lamborghini Hurrican in the ADAC GT Masters at the Nurburgring in two weeks time, but now has two opportunities to right some wrongs in Formula 1. Having got the call up to replace Sergio Perez while the Mexican recovers from COVID-19, his former Force India teammate’s misfortune is Hulkenberg’s best opportunity ever to snatch that elusive podium.
The Racing Point RP20 is arguably the second best car on the grid at the moment, particularly while Red Bull Racing struggle to unlock the performance that’s apparently hidden away on their R16. Both Perez and Stroll have looked strong over the opening races, but have been unlucky with various incidents and accidents that have prevented them reaching the full potential results the car seems capable of. At Silverstone, the RP20 should be primed to fight for best of the rest behind the Mercs. Better yet, Hulkenberg knows he can race purely for himself without having to worry about any pesky team orders. What are they gonna do? Fire him?
If Hulkenberg can find his feet quickly during practice, then he’s a genuine contender for the podium over the next two weekends. In fact, he’d be one of the favourites to do so. Out of nowhere, he’s been handed the most competitive machinery of his F1 career and it’s now up to him to deliver upon that. A strong showing could be the salvation of him, even though there’s precious few seats still available for next season. Haas is a possibility, as could Alfa Romeo. Red Bull are known to be fans of his and, if Alex Albon continues to struggle, there is a possibility the team could look to finding a strong second driver to go alongside Max Verstappen for a title bid. There’s a lot at stake, and a lot of pressure. Nico hasn’t handled it brilliantly in the past but, right now, what’s he got to lose?