Horse and groom?
F1 folk were surprised McLaren didn't sign him, but many believe Ferrari will. Meet Nico Hulkenberg, who has won titles at every stage of his career... bar one
By Simon Arron
Act one, Scene two :
Silverstone, England, August 31, 2006. A cynic-ripe industry doubted A1 GP the self-styled 'world cup of motor sport' would ever get off the ground, but 20 cars were ready for testing as the second season loomed.
A1GP operated on a franchise system, with established teams running identical cars on behalf of competing countries. Multiple FIA Formula 3000 champion Super Nova had two, in the colours of New Zealand and Germany. "We'd previously run Adrian Sutil a few times in the German car," says team principal David Sears, "but his manager was forever complaining about this and that. We were looking for something different and somebody recommended Nico Hulkenberg. We didn't know too much about him. He'd won lots of Formula BMW races en route to a title and had competed in German F3, which wasn't really a front-line series at that stage, so A1 GP represented a bit of a step.
"Anyway, we stuck him in for the second day of testing and on about his third flying to be the quickest knowing either the lap he set what proved time, despite not car or the circuit. That completely blew me away. I thought, `Blimey, he learns quickly'. I'd only ever experienced anything like that once before, ahead of an F3000 race at Enna in 1998. Juan Pablo Montoya blew one of our engines and hardly practised at all, but we got him out for the final few minutes of qualifying and he bagged pole. That was hugely impressive, but at least he was familiar with both car and venue. Nico was pretty raw when he came to us, but it was immediately obvious that he was supremely quick."
Hulkenberg went on to compete in 20 of the 22 A1 races, winning nine, finishing 18 (always in the top five) and ensuring that Germany breezed to the title. By the time the series was canned, two years later, Hulkenberg was on the verge of securing an F1 race seat with Williams.
"He's an all-round good guy, too," says Sears, "and not afraid to get his hands dirty. He wants to know how cars work and I believe he spent time in the composites section when he was reserve driver for Williams he'd be in there on Mondays, helping to fix broken front wings and stuff! That side of his character endears him to teams and certainly did with us.
"He was extremely thorough in A1GP. By the time most of his rivals were waking up, Nico would have been to the gym, run the track and eaten his breakfast. As well as arriving early, though, he'd also stay late. He even used to help us clean the car, because he felt it would be unfair if the mechanics had to stay too long into the evening as a result of his handiwork. He had a very humble approach and proved to be a great team player who knows how to motivate those around him that's probably one of his best features."
Act one, Scenes two-four:
The conquest of Europe, 2007-2009. Host theatres include established classics such as Brands Hatch, Pau, Zandvoort, Mugello, Monaco, Norisring, Spa and Monza.
Where do you find the best young drivers? Nowadays, there's a fair chance they'll have been nurtured at some stage by ART (formerly ASM), the team owned by Frenchmen Frederic Vasseur and Nicolas Todt, son of current FIA president Jean.
The 2013 F1 grid wasn't quite settled at the time of writing, but 10 of the 22 confirmed drivers were ART alumni and Jules Bianchi, tipped for the second Force India seat, was poised to become the 11th. Recent F1 cast-offs Kamui Kobayashi, Sebastien Buemi, Lucas di Grassi and Adrian Sutil also feature on an illustrious F3/ GP3/GP2 roster alongside such as Sebastian Vettel, Lewis Hamilton, Romain Grosjean, Valtteri Bottas, Paul di Resta, Pastor Maldonado and two Nicos, Rosberg and Hulkenberg.
"I first noticed Hulkenberg in 2005," Vasseur says. "We were running Lewis Hamilton and Adrian Sutil in the F3 Euroseries and the ADAC Formula BMW championship was often part of the support programme. Nico seemed to win most of the races I watched and at that stage looked pretty phenomenal. I was subsequently aware of his success in A1GP, too."
Such speed did not immediately translate when Hulkenberg resumed his F3 career, however. At the time, the German admitted that he'd become accustomed to the unruly ways of a 600bhp A1GP chassis and it took a while to rediscover the finesse an F3 car craves.
"Things didn't go particularly well when Nico arrived in 2007," Vasseur says. "There were all sorts of complications during the first four or five meetings, so after the Magny-Cours event we sat down with Nico and Willi Weber, his manager, to discuss what was going wrong and what we needed to do. It's a great strength, though, that Nico has fantastic self-belief and determination. He didn't complain, it was more a case of, 'Right, let's get on with it'. He addressed the things we'd discussed and scored more points in the second half of the season than his team-mate Romain Grosjean, who won the title."
Hulkenberg wound up third in the final standings and at the season's end Weber arranged for his charge to make his F1 debut with Williams, during an end-of-season session in Jerez. He performed well enough to earn a test contract for 2008, when he scored seven victories en route to the F3 Euroseries title. "That campaign didn't start particularly well, either," says Vasseur, "because Nico suffered a blown engine in the first race and broke a starter motor as he left the line in the second, but he didn't let that bother him: his mental strength and confidence are fantastic. In that respect he is possibly the most solid driver I've known. He's absolutely sure of his own capabilities and never allows external factors to distract him."
Sears concurs: "We never noticed any major weaknesses," he says. "You see some young drivers tied to their girlfriends by a lasso, but it was clear that Nico didn't intend to allow anything to stand in his way. He was incredibly focused. After he'd won the F3 title I was very keen to sign him for my GP2 team, but sadly it wasn't to be."
He remained within ART's embrace for 2009, with his reserve role at Williams extended for another year... but once more things began modestly. "There were a couple of podium finishes early on," says Vasseur, "but Grosjean made a flying start and had quite a big points lead after a few races. Again, we sat down to discuss things and Nico reassured us that there was no need to worry. He was certain he could make up the difference and soon afterwards we went to the Nurburgring, where he won both races a turning point that reflected his self-belief."
Three more victories and yet another title duly followed. It helped that Grosjean dropped out shortly beyond mid-season, when Renault shifted him to its F1 team to replace the axed Nelson Piquet Jr, but by that stage Hulkenberg was already ahead on points.
"In recent years," Sears says, "quick, well-heeled drivers have stuck around a while in GP2 before taking the title at the umpteenth attempt, but Nico did it at the first time of asking and against a strong, experienced field, too. That was very impressive."
Act two, Scene 18:
Interlagos, Brazil, November 6, 2010. Williams has just taken its first pole position for more than five years and Cosworth its first since France 1999 but Nico Hulkenberg's future with the team appears in doubt. That, though, cannot sour the moment...
Nobody had seen this one coming, but Interlagos has a habit of conjuring the unexpected. Hulkenberg was only 14th in Saturday morning's final practice session, but had sat out the final few moments. "A lot of young drivers might become flustered when they're that far back," says former Williams engineering director Patrick Head, "but Nico is not like that. The car was exactly as he wanted it, so he didn't see much point playing around. His attitude is very mature."
The capricious local climate then kicked in and gave the circuit a good soaking. "Nico showed a lot of guts that year," says Head, "even though we didn't give him a particularly good car." The FW32 chassis always worked well, though, on a 'green' track washed clean by the elements not usually much of an asset on the Saturday afternoon of a GP weekend, but it was on this occasion.
Hulkenberg and team-mate Rubens Barrichello both made it through to the final qualifying phase and completed their first laps on Bridgestone intermediates. The German initially planned to stick with the same compound for his final run, but McLaren driver Lewis Hamilton had been first to take a punt on slicks and Barrichello, more aware than most of local conditions, followed suit. Alerted by race engineer Tom McCullough, Hulkenberg did likewise. The outcome? Each of his final two laps was good enough for pole and the last was more than a second clear of the fancied Red Bulls of Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber. When he first checked his dashboard read-out, Hulkenberg wasn't sure whether he'd done quite enough. It just hadn't occurred to him to look at the number in the middle: he managed a 1min 14.470sec, Vettel a 1min 15.519sec.
He had never previously raced at Interlagos: Barrichello, who could have driven the place blindfold, was 1.8sec slower (and blamed a dawdling Hamilton for getting in his way). At the time, Hulkenberg accepted his time in the spotlight would be fleeting. "Tomorrow," he said, "my best option would be to make a good start and drive away from these guys, but in the dry I accept that's probably not going to happen." Nor did it: Vettel passed him before the first turn and Hulkenberg went on to finish eighth. That, though, could not dilute the majesty of the previous afternoon.
"Nico," Webber said, "gave us all a bit of a driving lesson."
It proved to be Hulkenberg's penultimate start for Williams, because Pastor Maldonado's Venezuelan oil dollars were being brandished on the horizon. When the impending change was confirmed, the team's then-chairman Adam Parr reacted irritably to suggestions that he was hiring a mere pay-driver. "We have never put anybody in a car if we didn't think they were ready for F1," he said, "and Pastor has just won the GP2 title with a rookie team."
True to a point: Maldonado is no makeweight, but won the GP2 title with Rapax — new in name, but in effect just a rebranded version of the Piquet Sports operation that had been present since the category's inception.
In 2009, furthermore, Hulkenberg and Maldonado had both driven for ART, when the German rookie scored 100 points to his teammate's 36, even though the latter was competing in GP2 for a third season.
Parr forgot to mention that bit.
"Nico was unhappy to lose his Williams seat," Head says, "but modern F1 reminds me a little of the Premier League, in that not all teams are necessarily self-sufficient without outside help. Anybody with half a brain can probably work out why he was replaced."
Act three, Scene one:
The Emirates Lounge, Changi Airport, Singapore, September 24, 2012
There are occasions when airport lounges and motor racing paddocks are almost indistinguishable — and this was just such a moment. For a while, a small group of us chatted with GP3 Series champion Mitch Evans and his former racer father Owen, who had paused in Singapore en route from Europe to their New Zealand base. Once they'd left to catch a flight to Auckland, we were joined by a representative from a driver management agency (who shall remain nameless).
Much of the weekend speculation had focused on Lewis Hamilton's future and the agent wondered what we thought. The message from McLaren, we said, seemed to be that Hamilton would stay (and in last month's Motor Sport, Nigel Roebuck's conversation with Martin Brundle revealed that the team believed as much — not least because it had received an email to that effect). The agent smiled. Hamilton, he insisted, was poised to join Mercedes and Sergio Perez would be hired to fill the gap. Oh, and Ferrari was courting Nico Hulkenberg as a likely replacement for Felipe Massa...
Agents tend to know these things, but so far his disclosures have been only partially accurate. After a year as Force India's reserve, Hulkenberg looked highly impressive when he graduated to its race team in 2012 (especially in Brazil, where he led on merit after he and Jenson Button showed rivals how best to manage a race in mixed conditions), but for now has taken what many perceive as a sideways step, to Sauber — a long-time Ferrari customer and ally.
He tested the Swiss team's C32 for the first time at Jerez, early in February, and was encouraged by what he saw. The car has been aggressively designed for this year, with conspicuously slender sidepod packaging, but Hulkenberg — physically one of the sport's larger drivers — felt comfortable enough. "My height was a bit of a limiting factor at Williams and Force India, too," he says, "but I have no aches, pains or bruises after a full day's running." And could he dispense the perception that he tends to perform better in the second half of a season that he does during the first?
"I hope so," he says, "but I'm sure people's thoughts are influenced by the way my career has gone over the past few seasons. I went from F3 to GP2, from GP2 to F1 with Williams and then took a break from racing for a year. This time it should be a seamless transition, with only a change of teams."
The final words go to his former mentors. Vasseur: "It's difficult to compare drivers from season to season, but Nico is right from the top drawer. If he's given the right car, it wouldn't surprise me if he won the world title."
Head: "I think Nico has added more finesse to his driving during the past two seasons. He's a well-rounded individual, without airs or graces, a very positive character who loves his racing and has all the attributes to become a champion."
Sears: "Everybody says he's on Ferrari's radar and that makes complete sense. In the meantime I think he'll fit well at Sauber, because they produced one of last season's best cars and you have to wonder how many races they might have won with different drivers at the helm.
"Nico is quite a rare case, a driver who has been able to make his way in the sport on the basis of talent and personality, rather than bags of cash. It's rather refreshing and I'd be amazed if he doesn't become world champion one day."
Act three, scene two commences in Melbourne, on March 15.