A Timely Lane Switch for Nico Hulkenberg

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Photo credit: Formula 1

First published in Grand Prix 24/7, Reader Rights section. Below is my original version:

Force India has been in F1 for eight seasons and they have made incredible progress as a private team. From their early years as back-markers to currently being the fourth-best team in the Constructors’ standings, Force India has made a patient, gritty ascent, mostly thanks to their consistency during the past three seasons, featuring the strongest driver pairing they have ever fielded: Sergio Perez and Nico Hulkenberg.

In F1 however, a glass ceiling seems to exist that limits private teams with talented drivers from reaching the top of the pinnacle of motorsport, especially in the sport’s current era. Given the complexity of F1 power units, Race seats in full factory-backed teams like Mercedes and Ferrari are one’s best chances for attaining championship glory. Chassis regulations are expected to change again next season, so as a driver, it’s definitely better to be in a team that (1) can build and develop a reliable power unit and (2) build an optimal package around that power unit. It sounds like a simple formula for success but it still takes tremendous amounts of money and resources. Private teams these days barely keep themselves afloat.

Realistically, a team on a budget provides no greener pastures for driving talent, which is why during the past month or two, there were talks about Perez’s uncertainty of his future with Force India. The Mexican has since confirmed his continuation with the team at least up to next season but I couldn’t help but think that the time he took to make his decision may have masked his (and his sponsors’) doubts about the team’s competitiveness in revamped regulations next year. Then again, Perez surely did not want to make the same mistake he made when he moved to McLaren in 2013 and lasted only that one forgettable season with them.

What is now also certain is that Perez will be paired with a new teammate next year, following Hulkenberg’s departure to Renault. This is the major story coming out of the off-week leading to the US Grand Prix, effectively starting the driver carousel. There is no doubting Hulkenberg’s phenomenal talent but he’s entering the prime of his career and it was getting obvious that Force India was going to be a perennial midfield team.

Hulkenberg driving for Force India has been a delight for the past three years. He would be leaving the team under good terms as team boss Vijay Mallya acknowledges that it would be a crime to prevent his young driver’s career progression. The German has had his unlucky moments but other than those hiccups, his metronomic consistency from one grand prix to another, in both qualifying and race results, has made him such an appealing talent. But underneath all the awe and praise, there was an almost collective feeling among fans and the F1 paddock that he was getting stuck and that his career may have been stagnating. The clock was certainly ticking but his potential had not yet been fully realized. Everyone was curious and impatient: Exactly what is Nico Hulkenberg capable of achieving?

There’s no question that he is a highly rated driver and even a few years back, he was linked to a possible move to Ferrari. He had his shining moments in Brazil in 2010, his rookie season, when he scored a pole position for Williams. Two years later in the same venue, he battled Lewis Hamilton for the race lead and could’ve won. And then of course, there was Le Mans in 2015, when he became the first active F1 driver since 1991 to win the prestigious race. Despite having been on the top step of the podium at Le Mans, Hulkenberg has yet to finish on the podium in an F1 race. With more than a hundred grand prix starts within six seasons, he still has no podium finish. For a driver of his caliber, this is a baffling fact. All of these prove the immense talent that he possesses which unfortunately, has been on limited display in F1.

Now, he has made a brave career choice of switching to the Renault factory team. For the German driver, a change of scenery seemed necessary perhaps because he was too consistent, but the middle of the field is not the ideal place to showcase that. It was about time for him to switch lanes but the question now is whether he has chosen a faster lane or not. On impulse, it’s easy to imagine Hulkenberg dropping towards the back of the grid, driving a sub-par car, and not being competitive. However, it’s wise to remember that Renault, on their return year to the sport, have nothing more to gain this season, so they’ve smartly focused more on the development of their new car for next year. It’s actually best to just ignore their performance this season. Things are looking up now that the Enstone-based squad has regained factory backing.

Renault has always known what it takes to be a contender. During the previous decade, Fernando Alonso won his two world titles with this team. In 2010, Robert Kubica was in top form and delivered strong results. And then Kimi Raikkonen, making his F1 comeback in 2012, finished third in the drivers’ championship while racing for the then-Lotus Renault outfit. Let’s also not forget that Michael Schumacher won his first two championships with the Enstone team. Undoubtedly, star drivers have shone in Renault machinery.

It has been a slow few seasons for the team but with the new regulations coming up and their proven history as a factory-backed outfit, there’s reason to believe that they’re back on their way towards the sharp end of the field. Next year, Nico Hulkenberg will race for the Renault F1 Team and he may well be the squad’s next star to shine.

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