Hülkenberg IndyCar test offers blunt reminder of racing outside 'Hollywood' bubble of F1

Indycar Racing News

Nico Hülkenberg is contemplating life across the pond after undergoing a McLaren IndyCar test, but the authentic driving experience of Barber was a stark reminder of US open-wheel racing's contrast with F1

Hulk lead

There was a strange juxtaposition between the two circuits I was at on Sunday and Monday. One was absolutely packed with around 140,000 fans and full of the pomp and ceremony that you would expect from a grand prix, the other was a little quieter…

Barber Motorsports Park is nestled away in parkland just outside of Birmingham, Alabama, and as you drive up the private dual-carriageway entrance avenue it feels much more like you’re arriving at a golf club than a racetrack. That feeling only grows as you loop around the outside of the circuit – getting plenty of views of the undulating track through the trees – before dropping down into a very open and fairly modest pit area.

Parking up, there were just a handful of trucks despite five different cars running at the Andretti-organised test, and I could legitimately just park against a fence next to one of the haulers and walk five paces into the pit lane to see how IndyCar’s potential next Formula 1 convert was getting on.

Nico Hülkenberg hadn’t driven a racing car since his last-minute appearance for Racing Point (as it was) at the Eifel Grand Prix last year, just over 12 months ago. For a spell he was linked with the Red Bull seat if Alex Albon was replaced, and the German was certainly in the frame but Sergio Perez had the ability to do his talking on the track and secured the drive alongside Max Verstappen.

Hulk on track

Hülkenberg described the Dallara IndyCar as a “steering monster” after his initial running

Confirmation came so late that Hülkenberg was left without a realistic chance of securing another decent seat anywhere else for 2021, so he’s continued reserve driver duties for Aston Martin while looking for opportunities for next year. And that opportunity might come with McLaren in IndyCar.

Zak Brown is keen to see McLaren take on the might of Penske, Andretti and Ganassi in the States on equal footing, so a third car is planned for 2023, but looking increasingly likely for at least some of 2022. Nothing’s certain yet, but it’s looking like that could even be for the full year with a road/street course deal for one driver and ovals for another.

“It was tough work even before real performance running was done”

With it clear there was no potential for an F1 seat next year, Hülkenberg got serious about IndyCar. But rather than simply chasing a deal somewhere, he wanted to try the car for size, and McLaren wanted to get a feel for the driver.

Initial running was spent getting comfortable driving the car in the most literal sense. The seating position is different compared to F1, and the Aeroscreen makes driver ventilation a challenge. So the German was taking most of the morning to get into a place where he could really focus on the car’s potential performance.

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That meant he was regularly in and out of the pits, but rarely out of the car. Only once before the lunch break did he have a little spell out of the cockpit.

Initially, he got a car that seems pretty slow and heavy at low speed, but still physically tough to drive given the lack of power steering. So it was tough work even before there was real performance running being done.

To keep things interesting, some light rain during lunch continued into the second half of the day, which meant all five cars on track were slow returning, although the track surface remained relatively decent. Then the sun started to break through and as the temperature increased, so did Hülkenberg’s performance level.

Pushing the car more towards its limits gave the German a real appreciation for the physical challenge an IndyCar provides, calling them “steering monsters” after he climbed out, after feeling like the steering would almost lock through some of the fast chicanes on Barber’s backstretch it was so tough to correct.

Hulk above

Hülkenberg has been without a full-time drive since 2019

But he climbed out with a big smile on his face, fist-bumping the mechanics that had worked on the car all day before debriefing with the engineers.

And that’s probably the most important test at this stage. Given the fact he didn’t want to turn his attentions away from F1, if Hülkenberg enjoyed himself then he’s more likely to be back for another go and trying to work out a deal to race. As a very new father, he’s not going to uproot his young family to head to the US if it doesn’t excite him.

And remember that other track I’d mentioned before? Events at Circuit of the Americas are exactly why drivers like Hülkenberg want to stay in F1. Pato O’Ward – on marketing duties at COTA and also present for the first half of Hülkenberg’s test – told me trackside that he had massive FOMO being on the outside of the F1 paddock at the weekend, as the race gave him Indy 500 vibes.

“To be fairly honest with you it’s like movie stars in racing cars,” O’Ward said. “What I saw this weekend is unlike anything else I’ve ever seen from fans. Fans wanting and requesting pictures and stuff from the guys, they’re treated like Hollywood movie stars now. Which I’d expect because they’re in a Netflix show and Netflix is Hollywood! Actors make the movies at the end of the day.

“It’s really cool to see, but honestly that growth hasn’t really impacted us [in IndyCar]. I know people are like ‘This is going to help all of motorsports’ – hmmm, not really. I don’t really see much of a change other than the drivers who are getting that exposure coming here and giving more exposure to the series.”

And that’s what experienced drivers who still feel they have a lot to offer in F1 are giving up. Even if it’s the right time, it’s clearly not an easy thing to do, because it’s an addictive setting.

Hulkenberg helmet

Having been outpaced to the tune of 1sec by a rookie at the test, Hülkenberg will know the commitment level needed to make any IndyCar drive a success

Watching all five cars blast through the dip and over the crest of Barber’s Turn 12, O’Ward was able to pick the pace order almost perfectly, because he knows what it takes to drive such a car quick. And Hülkenberg wasn’t top of the times.

Don’t get me wrong, it was a very respectable first effort, but Hülkenberg will also be aware of the level of driver that is well-prepared for the series, having seen IndyLights runner-up David Malukas a second quicker than him on his own IndyCar debut.

As Romain Grosjean has shown, the switch from F1 to IndyCar can be a successful one if you’re all in, but you can’t go there without fully committing. Half an eye on another paddock won’t cut it, because it’s such a different car and series that you have to embrace it completely or risk a tough introduction.

Monday will have taught Hülkenberg that on both fronts. Now it’s up to him to decide how serious about it he is, and for McLaren to weigh up if he’s the right fit for the team.