Nico Hülkenberg was a star in waiting for much of his Formula 1 career – the next big thing who never quite had the opportunity to fulfil undoubted potential. This tall German was overlooked each time an opportunity with a leading team presented itself. Without that opportunity, the affable “Hulk” looked to the Le Mans 24 Hours for his greatest achievement so far – becoming the first current F1 driver to win the great race in 24 years.
Karting and early car racing success
A national karting champion, Hülkenberg made his car racing debut in the 2005 German Formula BMW Championship when driving for Josef Kaufmann Racing. He won eight times and snatched the title from Sébastien Buemi at the final round. The season concluded with Hülkenberg finishing third in the category’s World Finals in Bahrain.
He graduated to German Formula 3 with Kaufmann’s Dallara F306-Opel in 2006. On pole position for his debut and a winner at Hockenheim, he switched to a Ligier JS47/06 to finish fifth overall. His next move brought him to an international audience for the first time – representing his country in the 2006/07 A1GP World Cup of Motorsport. Hülkenberg’s nine victories delivered the title for Germany and marked the youngster as a star of the future.
Now 19 years old, he progressed to the 2007 F3 Euroseries with ASM’s Dallara F305-Mercedes-Benz and scored four victories to finish as top rookie when third overall behind Romain Grosjean and Buemi. Also the winner of Zolder’s F3 Masters invitational race, another impressive year was completed with his first F1 tests for Williams-Toyota.
The 2008 season was spent in the F3 Euroseries with ART Grand Prix (formerly ASM) alongside further F1 testing duties for Williams. The former was a dominant affair as he scored almost double the points of his nearest rival thanks to seven victories from six pole positions. There were tentative talks about Hülkenberg replacing the injured Felipe Massa at Ferrari such was his growing reputation although the German remained loyal to Williams.
Four races with ART in GP2 Asia that winter included pole position and victory in the Losail feature race. Hülkenberg was classified sixth in the championship despite missing three-quarters of the season. He remained with ART for the summer GP2 Series of 2009 but was consistent rather than spectacular to begin with. It was at the Nürburgring that his campaign really kick-started. He qualified on pole position (his second of the season so far) and then scored a double victory to take the points lead. Subsequent victories in Hungary, Valencia and Portimão eased this assured rookie to an impressive title win.
Formula 1 in the midfield
Williams promoted its protégé into the 2010 race team as Rubens Barrichello’s team-mate and Hülkenberg responded with a steady campaign that netted 14th in the World Championship. That included finishing sixth in Hungary and seventh at Monza but it was at the Brazilian Grand Prix when the F1 sages really took real note. He made the most of changeable conditions to qualify his Williams FW32-Cosworth on a surprise pole position.
However, F1’s economic realities forced Williams to accept Venezuelan sponsorship monies and replace Hülkenberg with Pastor Maldonado in 2011. Without an F1 ride, the German spent the year as Force India’s test and reserve driver – in the cockpit on Grand Prix Fridays but a frustrated spectator come Sunday.
His patience was rewarded with a Force India race seat as Paul di Resta’s team-mate for the 2012 F1 World Championship. Fifth in the European GP on Valencia’s harbour side circuit, he then qualified fourth for his home race at Hockenheim. Fourth in the Belgian GP was the best result of his career so far but Hülkenberg’s most impressive performance was reserved for Interlagos once more. Excellent in mixed conditions, the slick-shod Hülkenberg charged from sixth on the grid to take the lead on lap 18. He withstood constant pressure for 30 laps until Lewis Hamilton crashed into him while attempting to pass. Hülkenberg finished fifth – a podium lost but his reputation enhanced.
He joined Sauber for 2013 amid rumours that this was an audition for engine-supplier Ferrari. The team initially struggled to develop its C32 but Hülkenberg starred after the summer break. He qualified third at Monza (ahead of both works Ferraris) before finishing in a fine fifth position. Even better, he was fourth in Korea despite pressure from both Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso. Now consistently qualifying in Q3, he declined the opportunity to replace the unpaid Kimi Räikkönen at Lotus for the last couple of races. He finished his single season with Sauber 10th in the drivers’ championship.
Overlooked by McLaren and Ferrari once more, he returned to Force India in 2014 with Mercedes-Benz engines offering the hope of a more competitive campaign. Six top six finishes in the first seven races showed great consistency and he qualified fourth at Silverstone. However, Force India lacked the budget to develop its VJM07 and Hülkenberg eventually faded to ninth overall.
Victory at Le Mans
Hülkenberg stayed with Force India in 2015 but it was away from F1 that he stood out from the crowd. He signed to drive for Porsche’s LMP1 sports car team in that year’s Le Mans 24 Hours. Sixth at Spa-Francorchamps in preparation, Hülkenberg shared the winning Porsche 919 Hybrid with Earl Bamber and Nick Tandy to become the first current F1 driver since 1991 to win the race. He finished 10th in that year’s F1 World Championship with fifth on the grid in Brazil and a trio of sixth place finishes the highlights.
Hülkenberg helped Force India to finish fourth in the 2016 World Championship in what was his third and final season with the team. He continued to generally out-qualify team-mate Sergio Pérez and started an impressive fifth in Monaco and third in Austria. However, a first podium finish eluded Hülkenberg once more – fourth in Belgium matching his best F1 result so far as he climbed to ninth in the points.
Works Renault driver
Keen for the opportunity with a works team, Hülkenberg joined the recently re-branded Renault team in 2017. He was only out-qualified once by a team-mate (when he had a 20-place grid penalty) and impressed when Renault’s questionable reliability allowed him to. Fifth on the grid and sixth at the finish of the British GP, he lost a probable fourth-place finish to another technical issue in Singapore.
He remained with the team for 2018 and generally outshone his highly-rated team-mate Carlos Sainz. In a season where Mercedes-Benz, Ferrari and Red Bull dominated the podium finishers, Hülkenberg scored points on 11 occasions and emerged as the best of the rest – seventh in the final championship standings. He was involved in the first corner pile-up at Spa-Francorchamps, lost fifth-place when he crashed in Azerbaijan and rolled following contact with Romain Grosjean at the final race in Abu Dhabi.
Renault signed Daniel Ricciardo as Hülkenberg’s team-mate for the 2019 F1 World Championship. There was little to choose between their outright pace but the Australian prevailed in qualifying (12-8) and on raceday. Hülkenberg finished fifth in Italy, the best of ten points scores but slumped to 14th in the championship. And there was the bitter disappointment of Hockenheim where he ran second before crashing at the treacherous final turn to lose the chance of a first podium finish.
When high-rated Mercedes reserve Esteban Ocon became available for 2020, it was Hülkenberg who was released. Without an immediate opportunity elsewhere, he left F1 with the unenviable record for the most GP starts without a podium finish – 177.
2020 stand-in appearances
When Sergio Perez tested positive for Covid-19 ahead of the British Grand Prix, speculation was rife over who would be in line to replace him, but it was Hülkenberg who was chosen.
The German was on the way to the Nürburgring for a TV appearance when he got the call before rushing on a plane to Silverstone in time for Saturday qualifying. Incredibly, despite limited time in the car beforehand, Hülkenberg managed to qualify 13th. With Racing Point looking competitive, a chance of a maiden podium beckoned but it wasn’t to be as his car developed an issue and he didn’t take the start. Perez was not declared fit in time for the 70th Anniversary GP one week later, so Hülkenberg did get another chance, ending up a respectable 7th in the race.
His stand-in efforts weren’t finished yet either after Lance Stroll fell ill over the Eifel GP weekend. Hülkenberg started from 20th but put in a great drive to finish 8th and pick up vital points for the team.