There are pleasing echoes of the past in F1 star Nico Hülkenberg racing at Le Mans this year. But the real novelty for him is that, for once, he will enter a race as a true contender
Writer Rob Widdows
Many of us remember the days when a Grand Prix driver would happily race at Le Mans, in the hope of adding a victory in the ‘world’s greatest race’ to his tally. The Holy Grail was the triple, a world championship, the Indianapolis 500 and Le Mans, a feat famously achieved by Graham Hill.
Odd instances apart, those days seem long gone. Unless you are Nico Hülkenberg. The talented German, who’s endured a frustrating F1 career thus far, was keen to diversify and Porsche snapped him up to drive a third 919 at La Sarthe this summer. Once upon a time we wouldn’t have batted an eyelid, but in 2015 it’s perceived as both unusual and welcome that the Force India racer will tackle Le Mans between the Canadian and Austrian Grands Prix. He will be the first active F1 racer to contest the event since 2009, when Sébastien Bourdais – then with Toro Rosso – shared the second-placed Peugeot.
Last month Hülkenberg was at Spa to get his eye in at the 6 Hours. As expected, he was the centre of attention and happy to talk about this new challenge.
“Well, it’s nice to be in a car that can win,” he said, “but I’m here to learn, to prepare for Le Mans. This is a terrific opportunity for me; the World Endurance Championship is a great series and something I really wanted to do. I get on really well with the other guys, we are bonding as a team, we have some fun and we’re all working together to push Porsche forward. I feel quite comfortable in the car; I’m happy with my performance and really looking forward to Le Mans.
“Sure, it’s a busy time for me, going from one car to another, but I’m young, I love my job and it’s exciting to be a part of the Porsche family. Being in the car for two hours, maybe more, is no problem. I’m fit and not doing any extra training or anything.”
What about racing with a roof over his head, driving at night, threading through traffic with serious speed differentials between prototypes and GTs? It’s alien territory compared to his day job.
“It’s a different environment, yes, but Spa is the same with a roof, not that different really. Racing with two other guys sharing the car, that’s a big contrast to F1, but I quite like it. It’s not that difficult to acclimatise. The Porsche can win, so that’s a different mindset going into a race weekend from where I am in F1.
“The car is pretty similar to drive, lots of instructions from the engineer, managing the hybrid system, just like it is in F1. But here it’s not just my car, it’s our car, and so far I’m really enjoying myself. There’s a learning curve obviously, a different driving style, and there’s the traffic – but that’s a challenge I’m quite excited about. In managing those situations the driver can make a difference in the way he anticipates the traffic, to position himself and be smart about it.”
Realistically, what does he expect from his first experience of the big one, Le Mans?
“The target is to go there and do a good job for myself and for Porsche, but it will be tough having so little time in the car. We will learn a lot as we go along, and already I feel part of the team, a part of the amazing history of Porsche, especially at Le Mans. When I got the opportunity I didn’t hesitate. It was special and luckily I got permission from Force India to do it. I’m not thinking all the time about the history, about being a German driver in the Porsche works team, but yes, I’m aware of that, and maybe it’s something that will be a part of my future. Right now, I just want to deliver. The team has worked hard to build a third car.”
It’s becoming something of a cliché to state that modern endurance racing is a sprint, but what’s significant for Nico is that – despite the longer distances – he’ll be pushing tyres that last longer than those he’s used to in F1.
“The tyres are very stable,” he says.
“The game-changers are the four-wheel drive and the traction control, and the cornering is different – you can’t carry as much speed into a corner as you do in the F1 car. It’s good to be able to push harder on the tyres, I like that, but really the LMP1 and the F1 are quite similar: both very fast, both high technology, very advanced engineering.”
So what about racing in the dark? Sure, Bahrain, Singapore and Abu Dhabi run their GPs at night, but under powerful floodlights it’s hardly the same thing.
“Yeah, this is new, but I have done some testing in the dark, at Paul Ricard and in Bahrain, and it was something I really enjoyed. It’s a different atmosphere, just you and the headlights, the little lights inside the car, everything dark outside, I really like that. I’ve done enough hours in the car now to feel comfortable and I’m totally excited about going to Le Mans. I approach these challenges with an open mind, but I’m thrilled about seeing how everything will develop and I want to have these new experiences. So far it’s very positive and I am hungry for more.”
The Le Mans 24 Hours, it seems, cannot come soon enough.
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Briton Nick Tandy is the new kid on the block. Having graduated through the Porsche Carrera Cup and Supercup, he joined the LMP1 squad at Spa to share a third 919 with Nico Hülkenberg and Earl Bamber. Something of a baptism of fire, as Tandy discovered. The trio finished sixth in the Six Hours, three laps down on the winning Audi after Nick was hit by a factory Porsche GT in his opening stint.
Tandy’s ascent of Porsche’s ‘staircase of talent’ has been swift and smooth, proving that winning consistently in the Carrera Cup series can lead to greater things. He seemed undaunted by the task that lies ahead as he prepared for Le Mans with the big boys.
“I’ve raced at Spa many times, in single-seaters and in the Porsche Supercup, so I know the track and I feel as prepared for this as I can be. But, you know, my best moment was when Porsche gave me a contract at the end of 2012, the chance to race in the best championships in the world, whether that be GT3, or GT in America, or here in LMP1. It’s just awesome that I get to race these great cars.”
How does he feel about joining the top table, racing with the best in the world, being a part of such a legendary team?
“When I started racing sports cars I wanted to race a Porsche. The Carrera Cup programme is the best programme in sports car racing, it’s the place to be to show your talent, show what you want to do. That was always in my mind and it’s just great to be a part of the team, part of the family, to wear the overalls. And I’m ready.
“Driving the 919 is like driving any racing car over a lap – in the dry, anyway; it’s when you start using the hybrid boost, the fuel usage, then it becomes very involved. You’re looking ahead, using the controls on the steering wheel, talking to the engineers, managing the traction control, and focusing on driving as fast as possible.”
Last year’s Carrera Cup GB champion Josh Webster is hoping to follow in Tandy’s footsteps, having won a Porsche scholarship.
“The chance I’ve been given is just fantastic,” he says. “It makes total sense to follow the GT and endurance route, rather than chase F1. We don’t have the budgets for that. The scholarship gave me £80,000, which took the pressure off, and you can see with Nick what can be achieved – and you know, he didn’t win the Carrera Cup championship… I hope I can follow him up the ladder in the next couple of years or so.
“Also, I am aware of the history, so to be a part of that, and training at the Porsche Experience Centre at Silverstone with Richard Attwood, has just been great. This is a massive opportunity for me to prove to myself, and to Porsche, that I have what it takes.”