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Formula 1

Haas’s big decision looks a success – but ‘stress test’ awaits

by Matt Beer, Scott Mitchell-Malm
4 min read

‘It’s like they’ve never been away’ is a cliche that can be too easy to reach for.

But in the case of Nico Hulkenberg’s Formula 1 return with Haas so far, nothing else fits so well.

Even regardless of the fact this is his first full-time drive since 2019, he’s settled in at Haas so quickly team principal Guenther Steiner finds it hard to believe Hulkenberg is actually brand new to the team.

“What’s impressed me is how he got in the car and was very comfortable with it very quickly,” said Steiner.

“He got straight onto it. Did his job. Seemed to be like he was here already for a year.

“I’m not exaggerating. I was quite impressed by that. It’s very good.”

And Hulkenberg has been away a long time. Three teams have new identities since he last had a full-time drive. Seven of the 19 drivers he shared the grid with for his final Renault start at the end of 2019 aren’t in F1 anymore. Max Verstappen had no titles and only eight race wins back then. COVID hadn’t even begun.

COVID – and other drivers testing positive for it – meant Hulkenberg has made five race appearances with Racing Point/Aston Martin since 2019. But 56 grands prix have happened without him in that time.

Motor Racing Formula One Testing Day Three Sakhir, Bahrain

So to step back into F1 and into Haas so smoothly is an impressive achievement.

“On the first few runs I was immediately on a good level with the car, had a good feeling in it, felt comfortable and at home pretty quickly,” said Hulkenberg.

“And I think that connection and feeling developed pretty quickly over the three days so I’m glad about that.”

Hulkenberg was certainly in a good mood whenever he met the media through the Bahrain test. He quickly chipped in with “nope!” when asked by The Race if being back in F1 felt any different and “thank you!” when told how relaxed he seemed during the week.

But as everyone fished for ways to exemplify just how chilled, serene and promising Haas life was for Hulkenberg, he became ever more cautious and realistic.

“This is the start, the get-to-know phase,” he emphasised.

“We’re still in the honeymoon phase, it’s a new team, it’s all still new and exciting.

Motor Racing Formula One Testing Day Two Sakhir, Bahrain

“But I also feel I’ve settled in well. The team has welcomed me nicely at the end of last year and I’ve been to Banbury a few times in the winter.

“But it all feels pretty natural and pretty flowey already. So far, so good.”

And as the questioning kept heading down that route, Hulkenberg threw in a proper warning about judging his relationship with Haas before they’d actually been in any situations that mattered together.

“Look, guys, we’re in pre-season testing, we haven’t had a race weekend yet,” he said.

“We haven’t had the stress test of a race weekend. We’ve not had a bad day yet. So that’s all still to come.

“But we’re here to do a job, to work, to go racing. So let’s see what happens over the next few months.”

Perhaps that’s a sign of the worldliness that comes from having had three seasons away from the F1 grid and yet still managed to get back there again at the age of 35.

Motor Racing Formula One Testing Day One Sakhir, Bahrain

After deciding to sign Hulkenberg in preference to incumbent Mick Schumacher last winter, Steiner told The Race that he’d had no concerns at all that Hulkenberg’s ability would have faded or his fitness would have slipped too far from F1 standards. He just needed to know that Hulkenberg really, really wanted it still and had the mentality for getting stuck into yet another midfield scrap, 13 years on from his F1 debut and having had a long break from it all.

Hulkenberg emphatically convinced Steiner that was the case, and all the impressions from testing reiterated that.

And maybe that comes from the different perspective on F1 Hulkenberg admits his years away have given him.

“I guess in a way it’s also quite normal or natural, but it was nice in the time away to have a kind of disconnection and you have real time to reflect on the career,” he said.

“When you’re further away, your perspective in some respects also changes. So maybe you see it with different eyes here and there. Not completely or in everything.

“But now I’m happy to be here and ready to go.”

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