In Singapore, Nico Hulkenberg made an unfortunate record his own. The most consecutive race starts without a podium. 129 starts to be exact. And Singapore epitomizes the career of Nico Hulkenberg, a DNF while running in the contention of a podium.
The German arrived in Formula One blitzing the junior categories. In fact, he remains the latest driver to win the GP2 series in his rookie year. The feat is still unrepeated even after 7 years.
His early years in Formula One were full of promise. The sensational pole position in Brazil in mixed conditions driving for Williams. Mind you the 2010 Williams had no right being there.
In 2013 driving for a dog of a Sauber, he showed brilliant battles all year long. His stock had risen so much so that he was linked with both Ferrari and Lotus from next year onwards. Rumors were rife that Ferrari was so much interested in him that a pre-contract had already been signed and had blocked his move to Lotus.
However, the Ferrari announcement never came. Some say that his height which translates into more weight became a deterrent factor. Given the new V6 formula made driver weight a big issue, Hulkenberg’s 184ft frame did no favors to him. There were also rumors that it was Fernando who vetoed the German’s move to the Scuderia. It was said that Fernando found Hulkenberg’s driving style very similar to his own and simply didn’t want any in-house competition.
But ever since then, Hulkenberg’s career has been only a tale of thereabouts. His Force India years established him as a solid and consistent performer. But team-mate Perez’s podium runs and the absence of his own over the course of 3 years meant his goodwill has been reduced to that of a Journeyman.
The new regulations do present a ray of hope as they take away the biggest weakness of Nico Hulkenberg i.e. Tyre conservation. Nico may have fulfilled his dream of driving for a manufacturer but the Renault is still a couple of years away from being a podium contender.
That year’s Belgian Grand Prix is best remembered for the Grosjean shunt. But courtesy of it, many of the backmarkers climbed to good spots. Nico Hulkenberg climbed from 11th to 3rd behind Kimi Raikkonen. The young German soon passed the Finn and a net P2 was very much in the cards. But Kimi undercut Nico to take P2. Nevertheless, a first podium finish was still possible. But fate had other intentions. A fast charging Vettel who was behind the duo undercut both in his faster Red Bull and Hulkenberg ended just shy of a podium.
Damp conditions and Nico Hulkenberg go hand in hand. The German in his rookie year had claimed the pole in similar conditions. Two years later he found himself leading the race in when the rain caught out a lot of drivers. Jenson and Hulkenberg stayed out and Nico soon usurped the Brit. But the novice erred and spun handing the lead to Hamilton. But it wasn’t over as he soon caught Hamilton while they were negotiating the traffic. Nico saw the gap and went for it. He almost took the lead but then his VJM05 lost traction in the rear and he ran into Hamilton.
Hamilton was out and Nico was handed a penalty that pushed him down. He fought back but in the end, could finish only P5.
Returning to Force India after a stint with Sauber where he saw his chances for moving to a top team rise and fall, Nico capitalized Force India’s strong and reliable package. But a heavier car with degrading tires meant he always was at a disadvantage. In Bahrain, the Force India was in contention for the final podium step and it was between Perez and himself to fight it out. But in the end, Perez prevailed with his ability to nurse his tires better. On fading tires, in the end, Nico was relegated to 5th by Ricciardo.
Every time someone has pointed out his Podium-less run to Nico, he has always taken it on chin. The only memory he rues about is that of Monaco 2016. Starting a great P5, Nico held his position and followed Vettel’s Ferrari. The duo dived into the pits within the interval of 2 laps but a bad safety car timing and a poor decision by their respective pit walls resulted in them getting stuck in traffic.
The Perez side of the garage took the right decision on staying out longer and when he pitted he found himself jumping a lot of cars. While Hulkenberg was relegated back o P7 and having to snatch P6 from Rosberg on the run to the finish line, he also had to see his teammate celebrating the podium.
The inaugural race in Azerbaijan presented a great opportunity for Force India. The car had genuine pace around the 6 Km long circuit. The FI duo battled amongst themselves being only second to Mercedes. In qualifying, Perez lapped the circuit good enough for P2 while Hulkenberg spun in Q2 and got himself eliminated. What’s worse was that he was on a lap much faster than his team-mate.
In the race, Perez started 7th due to a gearbox penalty and Hulkenberg in P11. While Perez climbed to P3, Hulkenberg could only finish P9.
Another race of what could have been. Another race where the strategists let him down. Starting P7 it was expected to be another race of being the best behind the rest. But crucially on the first turn, the Ferrari duo and Verstappen crashed causing a bottleneck. A fast-starting Hulkenberg found himself in P2!
Once safety car peeled in, he maintained the gap to Ricciardo in 3rd. But K-Mag punted his Renault into the barriers at Eau Rouge. The Pit wall called the German in, to pit behind the safety car. But the extent of damage to the barriers meant that a red flag was almost a certainty in order to repair the barriers. The pit wall failed to anticipate it and Nico was called in.
He emerged behind Ricciardo into P3 and soon the race was red flagged. When it restarted, the order stayed as it is between Ricciardo and Hulkenberg because of the similar pace of the two.
In all this drama, Hamilton had moved a lot closer to the front and the Force India was powerless against the works Mercedes. Hamilton was unable to usurp Ricciardo though but it was another strategy blunder committed by his side of the Garage. He could have at the very least finished P3 had he not lost track position to the Red Bull.
2016 Brazillian Grand Prix showed why Nico Hulkenberg has very poor luck in F1. Heavy downpour and a lot of crashes later, Hulkenberg was running a strong P4. On lap 20, Raikkonen binned his Ferrari on the start-finish straight spreading debris all over. Nico couldn’t avoid hitting the detached front wing of the Ferrari and hit it head-on.
But to his relief, the race was red flagged and the running order stayed as it is. Everyone was called to the pits and his front wing was changed. When the race started again behind the safety car Hulkenberg was called back to the pits again within a lap. The reason a slow puncture. This stop relegated him to P15.
So when Verstappen pitted to take in inters to begin his now famous charge through the field, it took him until the penultimate lap to pass Perez who had inherited P3. With Nico being a better wet weather driver than Perez, maybe he could have had enough of a gap to open a lead just enough to hold Verstappen at bay and duly take a well-deserved podium.