Not because of his position as one of the most talented drivers of his generation, although he had yet to achieve the expected success in F1, his scintillating and jam-packed junior single-seater CV indicated that it was possible . But because of what Hulkenberg has achieved the last three times, he has been called up to replace an F1 regular.
Three times since the start of the 2020 season amid the coronavirus pandemic, Hulkenberg has replaced a driver who tested positive for COVID-19. At the start of 2020 he replaced Sergio Perez at the British and 70th Anniversary races at Racing Point, then he replaced Lance Stroll for the same team at that year’s Eifel Grand Prix at the Nurburgring.
He will now take over the Aston Martin car from Vettel, who became the team’s reserve and development driver following its name change from Racing Point for the start of 2021.
Although he was not required to race last year, Hulkenberg was still a regular in the paddock in his role as Aston’s reserve, which also involved making sponsorship commitments on behalf of the team during of events where she was allowed to bring guests. He also worked as a co-commentator for Austrian broadcaster ServusTV, a subsidiary of Red Bull which showed live racing for half of F1’s events on last year’s calendar.
He was not in contention for a return to racing for 2022, with Alfa Romeo the only possible candidate even before Haas’ saga with Nikita Mazepin following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
In any case, the American team moved quickly to re-sign Kevin Magnussen, another driver who so far has not achieved his previously predicted F1 success. An IndyCar test late last year went well for Hulkenberg, as he completed more than 100 laps at Barber Motorsports Park, but he ruled out a move to the American series for “personal reasons”.
And now Hulkenberg is resuming his super-sub status following news of Vettel’s positive COVID test result on Thursday morning in Bahrain.
Andrew Green, Technical Director, Aston Martin, Lance Stroll, Aston Martin, Sebastian Vettel, Aston Martin, Tom McCullough, Aston Martin Performance Director, Jessica Hawkins and Nico Hulkenberg, Reserve Driver, Aston Martin
Photo by: Steven Tee / Motorsport Images
But unlike the last time he stepped in for Racing Point, Hulkenberg will have at least three practice sessions to prepare with the AMR22 before qualifying on Saturday. But his performance at the Nurburgring in place of Stroll in October 2020 is an important benchmark when considering what Hulkenberg might be able to achieve this time around.
After taking the autobahn from Cologne to reach the circuit when Stroll’s disease, not identified as COVID until a few days later, forced the Canadian to miss FP3, Hulkenberg had to wait for the result of a rapid coronavirus test even before being able to enter the paddock – a requirement no longer required for fully vaccinated people. But that meant he wasn’t announced as Stroll’s replacement until less than an hour before qualifying began.
The first two practice sessions of the Eifel race had been wiped out, but Hulkenberg took part in qualifying having had no chance to prepare aboard the RP20. Racing Point sent him out early in Q1, to complete a series of several laps on the soft tires with the aim of getting him up to speed as soon as possible. He moved away from the bottom of the times before the final moto, but he slid deep at the first corner and a small lock-up later around his final lap let him start last on the grid.
Good enough under the circumstances, but Hulkenberg’s performance on the Nurburgring was even better. After a long first stint helped by many rivals in the lead, Hulkenberg was a big winner in the late-race safety car period, after which he used new softs to catch and pass Haas driver Romain Grosjean and eventually finished eighth.
“What a race and what a story it was,” he said afterwards. “I really didn’t think we could go from last to eighth.”
Nico Hulkenberg, Racing Point RP20, passes his team on the pit wall at the end of the race
Photo by: Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Images
Hulkenberg’s two outings at Silverstone in place of Perez had already earned him plenty of praise.
Having had all of the testing underway for the British GP as Perez’s positive test was announced on the Thursday evening before that event, albeit only when Hulkenberg’s corresponding negative result arrived just a few minutes before the start of the 90-minute FP1 session. , he qualified in an honorable 13th place.
What made it all the more impressive was that he and Racing Point had had the confidence to try to get through Q2 on the mediums – something only regular leaders were usually able to do in 2020. But a sheared clutch bolt prevented him from starting the first of two races at Silverstone.
The following weekend, Hulkenberg advanced to a sensational third behind Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton. This came after he was close to being knocked out in Q2 after he went off to Chapel, before bouncing back to progress with the second fastest time, after which he ‘didn’t give much thought’ and loaded to ensure its high run. starting point.
When Sunday’s action began, a slow start left Hulkenberg behind eventual winner Max Verstappen, but he was still solidly holding fifth when the hard tires he was using deep in the race began to vibrate so loudly that he had to be called and adapt fresh softs, which he took in seventh place.
Had it not been necessary, Hulkenberg had every chance of resisting Red Bull driver Alex Albon’s late push to finish fifth behind Charles Leclerc – and finish well ahead of Stroll, who had qualified sixth – in conditions suffocating and difficult. this week-end.
“I’m happy to have scored points for the team,” he explained. “P7 is a good result, especially when you haven’t raced for [eight] month.”
Before this weekend’s race in Bahrain, Hulkenberg’s last race outing was 17 months ago – his action in the Eifel.
Nico Hulkenberg, Racing Point RP20
Photo by: Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Images
Bahrain has been something of a substitute circuit in recent years as Stoffel Vandoorne replaced the injured Fernando Alonso at McLaren for a one-off appearance in 2016, as well as George Russell and Jack Aitken’s respective calls to Mercedes and Williams after the COVID positive of Hamilton result ahead of the 2020 Sakhir race at the track’s outer loop layout, where Pietro Fittipaldi raced in place of Grosjean at Haas after the Frenchman’s fiery crash in the Bahrain GP victory for Hamilton the previous week.
But if he doesn’t face a lack of training preparation at the Nurburgring this time around, Hulkenberg’s chances this weekend are nonetheless hampered.
Although he has known the Racing Point team since he competed in 95 F1 events for the team during his Force India days, Hulkenberg’s 2020 outings have been in machines built to a formula in which he was still racing with Renault when he lost his regular. place on the grid at the end of the previous season.
This time, Aston and the others built ground-effect machines to F1’s vaunted new aero formula, in which it had no testing time.
After arriving in Bahrain on Thursday evening, Hulkenberg’s challenge will therefore be to quickly acclimatize to the modified driving style required by ground-effect cars, with F1 drivers now having to deal with increased understeer in corners. at low speeds, where mid-to-finish braking also presents a new added difficulty.
“I think it’s going to be a bit tricky at the start for him because the cars require a different style of driving than before,” said Ferrari driver Leclerc, speaking in the Bahrain paddock earlier on Thursday.
But Leclerc’s teammate Carlos Sainz estimates “three hours [of practice] is enough for the Hulk”, precisely because of his previous super-sub experience.
“He has done it before and he will do it again,” said the Spaniard. “He will be quick. You will see – maybe not right away but Nico is Nico and I know the talent he has. He will adapt. Maybe it won’t be peak Nico Hulkenberg, but even a pilot of his caliber without having perhaps the optimum operating time is still very strong and really good.”
Nico Hulkenberg, reserve driver, Aston Martin
Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images
That’s what Aston has in its reserve driver – a challenge-tested quantity of short-term intervention.
The seemingly compact nature of the field behind the early riders in 2022 pre-season testing, where Aston appears to be residing, will more than likely increase the pressure on Hulkenberg to deliver, but he can at least rely on his past super-sub results as he takes on this last unexpected challenge.