His back’s against the wall. Since the second half of last season he’s struggled to beat his teammate and he’s suddenly being seen in a new, less favourable way. Bahrain is his chance to turn things around.
Nico Hulkenberg’s whole career is looking more and more like it will finish up in the “what if” column of F1 history. He’s regarded as one of F1’s most promising young drivers, but at 27 (just a month younger than Sebastian Vettel) that window has closed. And since 2013, when he came within days of becoming a Ferrari driver, he has been surpassed by F1’s new generation. Ricciardo, Bottas, and before too long, perhaps Sainz and Verstappen, are now ahead of him in the queue for seats at one of the front running teams. In light of this, it’s hard not to view his partial WEC program with Porsche this season as an admission that his F1 career will now never deliver the success his talent deserves.
What if he’d stayed at Force India for 2013? Would he have continued his strong form from 2012? After a slow start to the season, where he was outqualified 6-1 in the first seven races by Paul di Resta, he dominated the intra-team duel and finished the year with a bang, challenging for victory in Brazil. His subsequent move to Sauber proved to be a step backwards for his career momentum, and he was severely hampered in the early season by his new car’s limitations. A best finish of eighth in the first ten races was not the way to get noticed and meanwhile, Adrian Sutil, his replacement at Force India, was garnering attention in his old car.
Sutil led in Australia and took a strong fifth place in Monaco. Given his speed and the quality of his racecraft, it is difficult to imagine Hulkenberg not doing even better than that. The lack of standout races in the first part of 2013 must have damaged his chances of getting that Ferrari seat for 2014. If he had stayed with Force India then maybe his results would have been enough to convince them to sign him instead of Raikkonen. Now, instead of trundling around in the midfield in his Force India contemplating a life after F1, he would finally have an opportunity to challenge the German supremacy of his old karting rival, Seb Vettel.
The situation has not been helped by his own form which since August 2014 has regressed alarmingly. After comfortably outperforming Sergio Perez in the first ten races his case for a top drive has looked less and less convincing. In the next nine grands prix Perez was ahead six times in qualifying and five times in the races. Hulkenberg may have taken the lion’s share of the points last season (96-59) but Perez – a driver who was dominated by Button in 2013 – was definably the dominant Force India driver at the end of last season, and that does nothing for Hulkenberg’s credibility.
In 2015, the slide has shown signs of continuing. It’s 2-1 to Hulkenberg in qualifying, but his Q1 exit in China was embarrassing and he was beaten by Perez in Malaysia, the last race they both finished. He needs to beat Perez this weekend to reassert himself in their battle.
Unfortunately for Hulkenberg, Bahrain has never been one of his strongest tracks. In four visits to the circuit he has beaten his teammate only once, and that was the very inexperienced Esteban Gutierrez in 2013. More significantly, he has twice watched his teammate take the plaudits for outstanding results there. In 2012 he was down in 12th while di Resta fought off Alonso’s Ferrari for 6th place, and last season Perez was on the podium as Hulkenberg fell back to fifth.
Why does Hulkenberg struggle in Bahrain? The obvious answer has to be tyres. Hulkenberg – whose driving style is naturally hard on the tyres, particularly the rears – has always struggled at high degradation circuits relative to his teammates. That problem is magnified at rear limited circuits such as Bahrain and Canada, where last year he was once again overshadowed by his podium chasing teammate. Although the tyre degradation characteristics in Bahrain have been slightly altered by the lower temperatures of the night, the track surface is notably abrasive and some driver/car combinations still struggled last year. It is imperative that Hulkenberg isn’t in one of those combinations this year, although the signs aren’t good.
Hulkenberg claims to be on top of his driving style induced tyre struggles, but in Malaysia this year, where tyres were the limiting factor, he was well beaten by Perez who used his trademark ease on the Pirellis to make one less stop in the race. It’s not a coincidence that Hulkenberg has recently been overshadowed by his more rubber friendly teammate either. In 2013 his race engineer told Autosport’s Edd Straw that Hulkenberg’s tyre issues were an area where he ‘needs the support from the pitwall,’ and since Singapore last year that support has been prohibited. With the exception of the wet Japanese Grand Prix, Hulkenberg has been beaten in every race where he and Perez have had untroubled runs (no collisions or penalties) since.
While everyone watches Rosberg’s urgent attempts to turn the tables on his teammate this weekend, I’ll be watching the other Nico with equal interest.
If you enjoyed this article then please come back for more (hopefully) interesting comment, opinion and investigations and check out the F1 Aggregator here and here. If you want, leave a comment here or on twitter (@AggreRacer) and let me know what you think.