Inside the driver’s mind, brought to life for F1

He is the longest-running Formula 1 driver without ever finishing on the podium, but Nico Hulkenberg returns for another try at Haas this year. After three years on the sidelines, the German feels rejuvenated and wants to prove to his new team that he belongs on the grid.

After three seasons in the reserve, Nico Hülkenberg becomes a full-fledged starter again this year. Haas. This absence was prolonged, we thought that his luck must have run out and he himself admitted it. But when Gene Haas and Günther Steiner decided to part ways with Mick Schumacher and look for an experienced driver for 2023, the list of candidates was very short. The team’s technical partner Ferrari did everything to put Antonio Giovinazzini in the American seat, but the Italian’s last hopes went up in smoke after he violently left the track during free practice at the US Grand Prix in October.

On the contrary, things have turned positive for Hülkenberg, with the bad luck of Covid and a few others allowing him to occasionally race as a substitute driver for Racing Point and Aston Martin. The first two Grands Prix of the 2022 season. “I think it was decisive”he says about his freelance work in Bahrain and Jeddah today. “I didn’t have any opportunities in 2021. What happened in 2020 was very important to get me back into the game, to remind the team managers and the people in the paddock that I’m still performing.”

The possibility of a full-time return was first raised last July when Sebastian Vettel announced his retirement. Aston Martin back-up Hülkenberg looked the natural candidate, but Lawrence Stroll quickly positioned himself to attract Fernando Alonso. “It happened at the beginning of summer vacation”Hulkenberg recalls. “I had a bit of hope. There were hints from some people in the team that there might be an opportunity, but that quickly disappeared. I heard from the team that an agreement had been reached with Fernando.”

Controversy over Alonso’s departure and Oscar Piastri’s contract also freed up space at Alpine. Between his first job at Enstone from 2017 to 2019 and his good relationship with Force India-era Otmar Szafnauer, a chance seemed possible. But the French team quickly turned to Pierre Gasly. “I was in contact with Otmar, but I quickly realized that it would not happen, that it was not a real opportunity”Hulkenberg adds. “The team has a different name, but it’s the same as it was at Renault. I think they wanted someone really new, someone who had never come to them before.”

After leaving Renault at the end of 2019, Nico Hulkenberg has participated in four Grands Prix.

Fortunately, a third opportunity arose at Haas, where Hülkenberg spoke briefly at the start of 2016. Looking for Schumacher’s replacement, Steiner contacted him. “It was more or less after summer vacation”Hulkenberg explains. “I didn’t know him well, I knew him from the paddock, not from discussions on a few flights. It just happened very naturally. Other people were involved. I don’t really have a manager, but I have a few advisers and a few people who help me and they They knew Gunter. The conversation started.”

Did Hulkenberg have to convince Steiner that he had the right profile to partner with Kevin Magnussen? “There was a little”she agrees. “They were still thinking about Mick, they were giving him time, they were treating him fairly, because he had good performances. That’s why it took so long in the end. In my case, the situation of being out for three years. , have to work, find convincing words, facts I had to bring in and instill his spirit. I feel in a very fresh, very positive state of mind, which I haven’t always had, so I have no worries about that.”

At the start of his career, Hülkenberg was never a competitive single-seater and therefore he never achieved a podium finish. So what are his expectations from Haas? “It’s F1”he gets angry. “There are only a limited number of opportunities and I am not spoiled for choice. But I always have the desire to compete and compete. It is obviously a smaller team, but I think there are things that can happen. We have improved and we can fight for good results and points. “Ultimately, as a competitor, that’s what I want, and that’s what I like to do.”

Nico Hulkenberg will replace Mick Schumacher at Haas in 2023.

The good news is that Haas have improved from last year’s constructors’ championship to eighth in the new era when budget constraints should help smaller teams. “I think the whole peloton is tighter”Hulkenberg observes. “There are definitely opportunities and even after a bad qualifying you can pass and get a good result. Passing is more possible with these new cars. It doesn’t take much difference and you can gain three or four positions. You have to work hard.”

Inevitably, the Hulkenberg-Magnussen duo made up for the infamous bird-naming episode at the 2017 Hungarian Grand Prix, after which they did not speak to each other for five years. “True, but not alone”Hulkenberg smiled. “There are other drivers I don’t talk to much! I broke the ice on the grid in Bahrain. I went up to him, gave him my hand and repeated his words. [de 2017], he found it quite funny. And we’ve been talking more since then. Done, there will be no problem. Of course, we compete and fight for our careers, but we will also compete for the team.”

Magnussen’s surprise return to F1 to replace Nikita Mazepi ahead of the 2022 season, marked by his entry into the points from the start, has he been an inspiration for Hulkenberg? “I wouldn’t say that”he answers. “I think the circumstances were a little different for him because the way he came back was different. But he still came back and performed right away.”

As he said earlier, Hulkenberg is in good shape now. He wasn’t happy when he left Renault at the end of 2019, but doing other things three years apart, including getting married and becoming a father, paid off. This often happens when the pilot takes a break. “It was very positive for me”he assures. “Of course, I can only speak for myself. But 2019 wasn’t always great. I felt like I wanted to spend some time there. Once we’re away, you develop a different understanding and new perspectives on how things went, what about what you’re doing. You think about a lot of things and digest it all. Even in the offseason you say three months is too much; not really, because we’re still connected, we’re still working. .

Nico Hulkenberg participated in the Abu Dhabi tests with Haas last November.

The reserve role that allowed him to remain in the closed circle of Formula 1 proved to be a good compromise. “It was a very different role than what I was used to”Analyzes Hulkenberg. “If you’re not in the car, if you’re not in the spotlight, if you don’t have to perform every day, the feeling is very different. You’re much more relaxed because there are no worse days. In the single seat. But at the same time, we miss the things that racing brings: the passion, the excitement, the excitement. And the referee The feeling was that I wanted to go back and do it for a while.”

At 35, Hulkenberg is just 48 days younger than Vettel. Perhaps we can draw parallels with drivers like Michael Schumacher, Kimi Raikkonen and Fernando Alonso, who extended their Formula 1 careers after a two or three-year hiatus. “In that respect, I am proud to be able to return to the starting line-up after three years without F1”he notes. “As you say, I am a member of a very exclusive club; Michael, Fernando, Kimi, they are World Champions. This is not my situation. To achieve this and for people to always trust me is a great achievement. .”

Having won titles in F3, GP2 and A1GP, Hulkenberg’s teenage career showed he was destined for the top. Does he now regret the choices he made? “I think I’ve said it before: it’s always easier in hindsight.”believes “Sure, if I had it to do over again, I’d do a few things differently. But there’s no point in dwelling on the past. You’ve got to learn from it, try to fix things in the future, and whatever.” I will not do the same in the future. But these are very personal. things and I don’t want to go into details. Obviously, there were some opportunities, important points to join a top team, that’s a fact. But I think there’s a reason why Haas wanted me – they believe I still have what it takes and I’m a quality driver.”

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