Much of Nico Hulkenberg‘s recent success can be accredited to a surge in competitiveness from the Sauber team itself, and that would be accurate. However, there is something to be said about the man’s talent when he holds off immense pressure from world champions Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso in a car that is supposed to be inferior, regardless of whatever competitive surge it has.
Hulkenberg was the image of composure during the Korean Grand Prix, and the way he picked off world champions at the start of the race like they were grapes on a vine was mesmerizing. As you can tell by that last analogy, it is hard to put Hulkenberg’s talent into words, and that is a true measure of what makes a driver great.
Whether he is in a Williams, Force India or Sauber, Hulkenberg is able to put whatever car he drives into places it has no right to be. His Sauber had every right to be in the top 10 this weekend, and the fact that both drivers were is a testament to the validity of that statement. But Hulkenberg had no right to be all the way in the top five, not just holding off, but supposedly beating superior drivers in much superior machinery. Hulkenberg has talent in drives, yet still he must prove himself by overachieving.
There is a relentlessness about Hulkenberg that is eerily Alonso-esque. Like the Spaniard, Hulkenberg has been outdriving his car all season, scoring points when it seemed impossible, and leading races briefly when it was out of the question beforehand. Like Alonso at Ferrari, Hulkenberg has been fighting for ultimate glory for years, only to be disappointed by the machinery at his disposal. The 2010 Williams was not a bad car, it was just lacking that extra quality to take it to the front. The 2012 Force India was not a bad car, by any means, but it was not capable of putting in podium-worthy performances when it mattered. That is, until Hulkenberg led half of the Brazilian Grand Prix on merit, in the rain, while holding off a more “capable” Jenson Button in his Mclaren. The 2013 Sauber did start off as bad; it was horrible compared to its previous iteration, yet Hulkenberg scored twice in the first three races, leading in China briefly. Now, the car is starting to come good, and Hulkenberg is matching and exceeding its gains.
This has been the story of Hulkenberg’s Formula One career, yet, he is still stuck in the midfield.
The silly season is still very real. A little hiatus after the Red Bull and Ferrari announcements does nothing to take away from the magnitude of the imminent Lotus, and even Sauber, announcements. On Lotus’s shortlist are Hulkenberg and Felipe Massa, the latter reportedly boasting a $15 million sponsorship package; that is how much Felipe is fighting for his future.
That isn’t to say Hulkenberg’s lack of commercial backing is indicative of his motivation to win at motorsports’ highest level; that is far from the case. Hulkenberg is a victim of the same unfortunate circumstances that plague scores of talented young drivers from Europe: money oversees. It is no secret that Sergio Perez‘s seat at Mclaren was secured by a hefty sponsorship from TelMex. He is obviously a good driver, and his 2012 results speak to that, but he isn’t the same as Hulkenberg. The rest of the paddock will tell you the same. Hulkenberg just doesn’t have money. Ally that to the fact that his future may be in jeopardy because he is too tall, and you see the factors that drive Hulkenberg to his recent results.
Motorsports are against the young German at the moment. Extenuating circumstances mean that one of the most naturally talented drivers on the grid could find himself stuck in the midfield for a long time or, even worse, off the grid entirely.
Those who say Hulkenberg’s seat at Lotus is a done deal are brave souls indeed. From what is right in front of our eyes at the moment, it is hard to say for certain where his future lies. Top teams need to recognize this and act quickly, or the problems we see in the sport today run deeper than we may have thought.