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Formula 1

Audi's first F1 driver has earned his unlikely redemption

by Samarth Kanal
4 min read

Audi's first Formula 1 driver for its works entry might not be the one who ends up spearheading its project. But considering Nico Hulkenberg spent three seasons on the sidelines, during which there was a very real prospect of his career ending, just getting the Sauber/Audi seat for potentially the next three years makes the 36-year-old one of F1’s most unlikely comeback stories.

The main draw for Audi seems to be that it wants a German driver to be one of the faces of its works effort in 2026. There are no other German drivers on the current F1 grid after Sebastian Vettel bowed out - and Mick Schumacher was replaced - at the end of 2022. Hulkenberg is, therefore, the best bet for Audi in that regard.

Nico Hulkenberg in 2010

Since making his F1 debut with Williams in 2010 (pictured above), he’s picked up 534 world championship points and notched 208 starts as of the 2024 Chinese GP. He is therefore among the most experienced F1 drivers.

Yet, Hulkenberg also holds an unwanted record in the most F1 starts without a podium, and he’ll probably break the record for most Formula 1 starts without a win in Miami on his 209th attempt.

But that doesn’t, or at least shouldn't, detract from his qualities.

After a stint with Renault that ended in 2019, Hulkenberg spent the next three years in the wilderness - though he would emerge from the coronavirus lockdown to make cameos in place of Sergio Perez and Lance Stroll at Racing Point in 2020, before stepping in for Vettel twice at the start of 2022 when the team had become Aston Martin.

Nico Hulkenberg Racing Point Silverstone 2020

Those cameo appearances only cemented Hulkenberg’s status as a reliable driver who can score points regularly. He finished seventh in place of Perez in the 2020 70th Anniversary Grand Prix at Silverstone having qualified a shock third, and eighth standing in for Stroll in that year’s Eifel Grand Prix at the Nurburgring.

His call-ups in place of Vettel at the start of 2022, in Aston Martin's cumbersome initial AMR22, didn’t go as well, but Hulkenberg did outqualify regular driver Stroll in the Bahrain GP and outraced him in the following Saudi Arabian GP.

All of which was enough to earn what's effectively a second F1 career as he was then called up by a beleaguered Haas to make his full-time F1 return in 2023 as its patience with Schumacher wore thin and Haas instead decided to bank on experience.

Hulkenberg's far from the only driver to take a hiatus from F1 then return in recent years. Daniil Kvyat, who is currently driving for Lamborghini in the World Endurance Championship, Hulkenberg’s Haas team-mate Kevin Magnussen, and Aston Martin’s Fernando Alonso have all done likewise.

Of those recently sidelined F1 drivers, Alonso is unquestionably the one who has nailed his second chance best. Having initially dipped his toe in non-F1 waters in 2017 by making a spectacular Indianapolis 500 debut, the two-time champion ultimately took two years out after a disastrous stint with McLaren starting in 2019. During that spell he won the Le Mans 24 Hours for a second time with Toyota, having first done so in 2018, made two more Indy 500 appearances (with less success), and even took on the Dakar Rally.

Now, the veteran is thriving with Aston Martin. In 2023, he began with three podium finishes and finished fourth in the drivers’ championship, which was his best return since his final season with Ferrari in 2014. In 2024, Aston Martin hasn’t been quite so competitive yet Alonso has scored five consecutive points finishes and been a potent enough threat to the Ferrari, McLaren and Mercedes drivers.

Nico Hulkenberg Haas Chinese Grand Prix 2024

Hulkenberg, also an outright Le Mans 24 Hours winner having achieved that with Porsche in 2015, scored just once in a grand prix in 2023 with seventh in Australia, but he’s hit the ground running this season with three points finishes - a seriously impressive feat for himself and the team given Haas was last in the 2023 constructors’ championship.

Unspectacular, yet assured, Hulkenberg has nailed his return to F1 after a year on the sidelines - albeit with far less fanfare than Alonso. His shot at a second F1 factory spell with Audi, following his stint at Renault, is a fitting end to his redemption arc. When he arrived in F1 in 2010 extremely highly-rated from his A1GP, Formula 3 Euro Series and GP2 titles, the idea of him ultimately getting a major manufacturer team contract wouldn't have surprised anyone. But it certainly would when he barely raced at all across 2020-22.

Taking a year out from F1 and returning to the championship isn’t an easy task either. Kvyat is a clear case in point as he lost his Toro Rosso seat before the end of the 2017 season - only to return for a two-year spell at the team in 2019 and 2020 that never looked like it was going to lead to another big opportunity.

Daniil Kvyat AlphaTauri Abu Dhabi Grand Prix 2020

Kvyat acknowledges that the time away from F1 “can be very helpful - it can actually be very refreshing to help your brain [reset]”, though he tells The Race - speaking at the inaugural A2RL event in Abu Dhabi, as he prepared to share the track with autonomous Super Formula cars - that “maybe sometimes you need to also be in the right place at the right time”.

Hulkenberg definitely has been. But this Audi chance hasn't just fallen into his lap.

And it’s not just Hulkenberg who is in that ‘right place, right time’ bracket.

Given the driver market has already been shaken up by Lewis Hamilton’s move to Ferrari for 2025, perhaps Audi has also nailed its timing and banked itself an experienced driver who might finally be fully delivering on his potential.

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