Nico Hulkenberg: F1’s unfulfilled potential world champion

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Nice guys finish last.
If you were a Nico Hulkenberg fan, then the statement won’t sound that promising. Would it?
But shouldn’t it be asked- can they necessarily finish on top? Specifically, when you direct the question to Formula 1, arguably the world’s most thrilling and salubrious sport, the perspective about topping often springs Nico Hulkenberg into the picture.

Respected and Reliable

He’s not a world champion. He’s not won a race. In fact, he’s not even bagged a podium. So how come he’s still respected and relied upon?
Nico Hulkenberg doesn’t bring you to the edge of that chair the way a Sebastian Vettel or a Fernando Alonso do.
Hulkenberg doesn’t carry an enigma like a Kimi, who may endure a dull weekend but would quite simply liven up a media interaction using some uncanny monosyllables. Nor is Nico Hulkenberg renowned for turning the fate of an F1 battle with an insane stroke of daring the way Lewis Hamilton can.
You haven’t heard Nico as being synonymous with late-braking. You associate a smiling-Aussie with that aspect of the sport.
Yet, Nico Hulkenberg retains an interesting melange of youthful exuberance that stands the risk of being a heritage value of sorts in the sport, should he continue to evade the podium.
Here’s a stat you’d expect Nico Hulkenberg to be mindful of.
In 2020, the Renault driver will complete a decade in the top echelon of motor-racing. That’s still a few years away.
But what isn’t is the impending resumption of what’s been a crazy season thus far.
In a matter of few days, precisely at Spa-Francorchamps, among the most challenging yet enthralling tracks on the roster- the nerve-centre of the Belgian Grand Prix- the Renault driver will enter his 150th Grand Prix.
Should he manage to merely commence the race, it would culminate in his 148th start in Formula 1.
But only one question remains.

Consistent and Capable

We know he’s fast. He is regarded as being consistent, and capable to make good, solid moves.
Importantly, he’s a driver who believes in competing absolutely fairly. Much of the 2017 season, he competed for scraps with Haas’ Kevin Magnussen, who gave back Nico a few expletives that he may have been smart to eschew. Nico, who endured a tough year, yet finished ahead of his teammate, Carlos Sainz Jr.
Bringing his experience into play, he’d garner 43 points to Sainz’ 14 and the duo would guide Renault to a respectable P6 on the constructors.

Interesting Coincidence

So implicit was the numeric 6 to Nico that on four occasions of the twenty races last year did Nico collect a sixth-place finish.
At Spain, Belgium, Silverstone and the Yas Marina, at the concluding Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, aced by Bottas, Nico Hulkenberg collected handy P6 finishes.
This year, he’s well beyond 50 points already. There are 9 more races to go. The car from the last year that was still performing akin to a Renault in development mode has resulted in aligning with Nico’s consistency, the vigour needed to collect fighting finishes.
If anyone doubted Nico’s abilities to fight, then merely turning back the clocks to the German Grand Prix of 2018 would provide an answer.
Where his compatriot Sebastian Vettel failed to finish his race, leaving the responsibility on the only other German to put on a show for home fans at the Hockenheimring, Nico responded by collecting a P5.
This was Renault’s best-finish in all Grands Prix conducted so far in 2018.

Not Driving a championship-winning car

But, this far, Nico Hulkenberg has been able to extract the best from the black and yellow liveried machine. In 8 races out of the 12 so far, Nico’s collected 52 valuable points. If you were looking for a driver who’s really trying, then probably your search ends here.
Let’s remember all that Renault would gather from 20 races in 2017 was just 53. Nico’s already collected all of that on his own so far.
He looks strong and has outperformed an outgoing Sainz again.
So while the familiar problem confounds the German- that of having not led a single lap yet again for another season so far- wouldn’t it be would be dismissive to shun down the smiling bloke.
To that regard, the purist cannot be doubted for reserving disappointments with Nico Hulkenberg.
Here’s why.

Grand Prix Debut in 2010

At Sakhir, Bahrain, he would qualify P13 and managed to drop down a position and finished fourteenth in the race. Then, 17 races later, at the imposing Interlagos, the young German driver took pole position.
Not too bad for an F1 debutant, isn’t it?
with slick tyres on a dry track, Nico burst onto the pole in a tyre-strategy termed a gamble.
But what wasn’t aided by luck one bit was that the earnest German would bag a very respectable P8 at Senna-land. In so doing, he’d lap the faster cars including Kubica’s Renault and Kamui Kobayashi’s BMW.
That would be his second-best finish in his debut year at Formula 1. Five races ago, at the Hungaroring, Hulkenberg would garner a fantastic P6.
For a bloke who seemed to outperform guys like Kubica and on some occasions, his Williams teammate, Barrichello, in his maiden season; turning out quicker laps on most qualifying sessions, it’s not heartening to note that Hulkenberg hasn’t set foot on the podium even once.
Of late, he’s been given a hard time by the McLaren of Alonso but Hulkenberg has kept the tail of his Renault ahead of both Haas drivers. In an action-packed, accident-marred race at Baku, had Hulkenberg not met with his “I hit the wall” moment, he may have fought for another fifth or fourth-place finish, who knows?

But that rests in the realm of unpredictability

What doesn’t, however, is that this somewhere ‘in-between’ driver, someone who’s exhibited his flair if not consistently hasn’t perhaps lived up to the expectations the world has of him.
What’s certain is that Hulkenberg hasn’t had the fortune of driving cars with loftier standards, of the kinds that Raikkonen in 2007 at Ferrari, Vettel in his Red Bull-reign or Hamilton in the Mercedes of 2016-17 have had the fortune of driving.
Yet, they’ve aligned their grit and talent to pacier machines to fetch remarkable wins.
What’s lacking on the Hulk’s end is perhaps that ability to drive to the absolute limit. Isn’t that the reason why we regard stalwarts like Fernando?
At Hungaroring, in his waning McLaren, the Spaniard found a way to set the fastest lap. Surely, that car wasn’t as good as the one driven by Nico.
Probably, with Renault improving, as seen from fewer DNF’s than the torrid last year, it could be said a stronger, more powerful machinery in 2019 may further fuel Hulkenberg’s chances to compete for glory.
At this point in time, it may simply be realized by bagging his first-ever podium. Should that come in the form of a race win, it will be only more thrilling for a driver of his remarkable talent.

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