Nico Hulkenberg is widely regarded as the most promising young talent in the Formula One field. He comes from a generation of drivers that includes the likes of Paul di Resta, Daniel Ricciardo, Sergio Perez, Pastor Maldonado, Giedo van der Garde and even Sebastian Vettel. All of these drivers have enjoyed varying amounts of success, and their reputations range from respected to condemned.
It would be easy to get lost in that group, and Hulkenberg has started to do that over the past few years. He won the 2009 (his rookie season) GP2 championship in dominant fashion and was immediately signed by Williams to partner veteran and former Ferrari driver, Rubens Barichello, for 2010. He consistently impressed the team throughout the season, with the year culminating in his unexpected pole position at the Brazilian Grand Prix. He has been on the radar of all the top teams ever since.
He impressed again in 2012 for Force India, after being third driver in 2011, by dominating his teammate di Resta in the second half of the season and ending the year in the top-10 of the championship.
When he moved to Sauber this year, he went in expecting, not surprisingly, that their impressive podium finishes of 2012 would continue. He couldn’t have been more wrong. A combination of lack of funding and an overly-ambitious design have culminated in a season to forget. Except for today.
Hulkenberg’s strong performance in qualifying, something we shouldn’t be all too surprised by, set up the perfect scenario for the race. We didn’t know the real potential of the car in the race, so expectations were conservatively set at a points-scoring finish. His pace during the race erased any concerns about him falling back through the field. Apart from a lackluster start, Hulkenberg held position the entire race, holding back a much faster Nico Rosberg and catching Felipe Massa.
This last fact is the most impressive aspect of his drive to glory today. With 12 laps of the race left, he had Rosberg on his tail and a six second deficit to Massa. He managed to erase a vast majority of that gap to less than a second by the end of the race, while slowly pulling away from Rosberg. It was quite a close finish for that trio and, had there been a few more laps, Hulkenberg would most certainly have passed Massa.
Hulkenberg’s drive today underscores the immense talent of the German and the silliness of the top teams for not scooping him up quickly. He was in the frame for several drives last year including what are currently Sergio Perez and Felipe Massa’s seats. It was a huge shame that Sauber’s expectations for 2013 were not met, for if Hulkenberg was at Sauber last season, he would surely have been able to capitalize on the speed of the car and take a win that Perez never managed.
The Italian Grand Prix was a career defining race for Hulkenberg, even more so than his Brazilian Grand Prix performances in 2010 and 2012. This was a race in which he proved he can run with the best of them in inferior machinery. That is the mark of a champion-in-the-making. Now, it’s time for the top teams to see that.
Felipe Massa had better watch out.