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Formula 1

Three factors making Hulkenberg’s podium bid a long shot

by Scott Mitchell-Malm
8 min read

The only person not getting carried away with thoughts of a first Nico Hulkenberg Formula 1 podium in the 70th Anniversary Grand Prix is probably Nico Hulkenberg.

As Racing Point’s super-sub, Hulkenberg will line up in third place on the grid for Sunday’s Silverstone race. The German driver has performed exceptionally well in Sergio Perez’s coronavirus-enforced absence, and the reward is a shot at ending a drought unbefitting a driver of his ability.

Hulkenberg has had a few opportunities to end that drought before, but very rarely had the chance truly in his grasp. It seems he does now, but looks can be deceiving.

“I knew this was going to come up now,” he said when asked about the opportunity to get the monkey off his back.

“To be honest, it’s very challenging and difficult circumstances but I know I have a fast car beneath me. So, it’s just trying to make sure I do everything right.”

That’s all Hulkenberg can do. But without some external assistance, it may not be enough.

The grid is not a true reflection of pace

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship 70th Anniversary Grand Prix Qualifying Day Silverstone, EnglandHulkenberg absolutely nailed qualifying. If the grid depicts those who did the best job on Saturday then Racing Point and Hulkenberg are deservedly ahead of Red Bull and Max Verstappen.

But Verstappen’s really only fourth on the grid because he and Red Bull got their Q3 strategy wrong on a day when the difference between the soft and the medium tyre seemed negligible, making tyre choice difficult.

Verstappen ran the medium tyre initially then switched to the soft. He could only manage fourth behind Hulkenberg, a second from pole – roughly the same gap as a week ago.

Had Verstappen opted for a conventional strategy, he reckons there was a good chunk of time on the table.

“I was just not sure which tyre was going to be the fastest so we gave it a try on both,” said Verstappen.

“I didn’t drive a lot, I only did like four laps in qualifying which is maybe not enough because we basically did a soft, then a hard, then a medium, then a soft, so I never really had a good reference.

“I think procedure-wise we didn’t do the best job there. So that’s something to learn from for next time.

“That’s why maybe also in Q3 we just couldn’t get it right. The car was not that bad. I think realistically I think if we would have had a little bit of a better preparation for Q3 with maybe just doing two soft, because I had the tyres.

“I think we could have been within seven tenths of Mercedes and that is not bad, because they gain quite a lot on the straight. We just made a few errors, I think, which we’ll learn from and try to do better.”

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship 70th Anniversary Grand Prix Qualifying Day Silverstone, England

Hulkenberg happily received the gift. And of course he had to produce a great performance to be in position to take it. Racing Point’s lower-downforce car has certainly made it a more competitive proposition, over one-lap and in race simulations (which we’ll come to shortly).

And full credit to Hulkenberg for being the driver to maximise that, not regular driver Lance Stroll.

“This week I had all these days to digest the feelings of the car and I felt much better prepared for this weekend and the lap in quali was good,” he said.

“In Q2 I made life a bit hard myself, going off in the first run. In Q3 I didn’t think much. I was just giving it everything, trying to squeeze everything out of the car and the tyres and myself.”

So, a job well done and a third place well-earned. But does the grid reflect how fast the respective cars really are around Silverstone? Almost certainly not. After all, before qualifying Hulkenberg had only been “pretty confident we could make it into the top 10”.

“To be third, I couldn’t really expect that and didn’t really expect that to be honest,” he said.

“Of course a bit of a surprise, but a nice one to take.”

Race prospects lean towards Verstappen

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship 70th Anniversary Grand Prix Qualifying Day Silverstone, EnglandThe transition from qualifying to the race will help Verstappen more than Hulkenberg, potentially for two reasons.

The first is that even if we take qualifying to be the true ranking of the Red Bull vs the Racing Point, we can expect Verstappen to edge ahead on Sunday.

“The Mercedes really has a [powerful] quali mode,” said Verstappen.

“You can see that once they turn up from Q2 to Q3 it’s a big step. And we don’t have that, so that of course helps.

“That I think also explains why, in the race they cannot use it as much. We are normally a bit in no man’s land.”

So the expectation, should normal service resume, would be for Verstappen to get ahead of Hulkenberg and then gradually ease clear.

The other factor in Verstappen’s favour could be strategy. This one is quite tricky as Red Bull’s deviated from the norm and Verstappen will start on the hard tyres.

“I felt strongly for that tyre because we are already running softer compounds,” said Verstappen.

“So we can’t use the hard like we had last week, which I think was pretty decent tyre.

“I wanted to go for the hardest option we had this weekend because this’s week soft is just falling apart. So, that was not an option you can see that for everyone.

“And then the medium, it was last week’s soft which was also not an amazing tyre. The top runners didn’t want to qualify on that [last week] so why would I qualify on it now while the track is even warmer?”

That could put Verstappen in a very strong position after the first stints, safety cars and track position permitting.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship 70th Anniversary Grand Prix Qualifying Day Silverstone, England

Yes, both drivers can run two stints on the hards and one on the mediums, but Verstappen’s should be faster because he will be able to switch to a new set of mediums for the final stint, on the lowest fuel.

Whether it proves a masterstroke from Verstappen or something that leaves him playing catch-up, either way it’s a bit of a misdirect for Hulkenberg’s prospects.

Hulkenberg’s been able to steal third on the grid but may quickly be knocked from the podium positions, or Verstappen’s race will be more complicated and he’ll have to fight to get ahead of Hulkenberg.

That might let Hulkenberg keep him at bay of course, but, more likely and quite painfully, could also mean Hulkenberg spends more time in the podium positions and then drops back quite agonisingly, so near yet so far.

“The harder compounds, they have been performing pretty well here so… not a bad option for him, I feel,” said Hulkenberg.

“It could play out well for him at the end of the day if he doesn’t miss the train.”

Hulk is lacking vital race experience

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship 70th Anniversary Grand Prix Qualifying Day Silverstone, England“I’m a bit surprised to be honest to stand here but obviously big smile on my face but obviously a lot of respect for the race tomorrow,” Hulkenberg said in the post-qualifying TV interview for the top three.

He knows the size of the task ahead of him. Realistically he’s only three pre-season test days and three grands prix weekends behind his rivals – but he missed out on a crucial bit of catching-up last weekend by not being able to take part in the race.

And, beyond that, he’s also not been living and training like an F1 driver. So while he seems to have kept himself in good shape, by his own admission: “No gym in the world and no training can really prepare you for that so… I definitely feel it.

“I’m going to get biggest tape that I have on tomorrow but I think I will survive somehow.”

It means Hulkenberg’s lack of track time is going to be painful. Physically, but also in terms of his on-track performance.

“That’s definitely going to hurt tomorrow, not having last week’s experience, not having gone through motions there with the start and everything, because it’s still new with this car,” he said.

“Starting lap one is going to be new for me but I think I’ll just try to get it right with all the experience that I have and then we’ll race. I’m a couple of races behind the other guys but I still remember what it feels like.

“I’ll just try not to think too much, keep my head down and have a good race tomorrow.”

Hulkenberg’s going to need to be adaptive early on in the grand prix, and says he will “try to learn fast and to keep the car where it deserves to be”.

Exactly where that is, though, is still an unknown. The RP20’s race pace has fluctuated wildly this season – solidly upper-midfield in Austria 1, Mercedes-matching in Austria 2, Class B-winning in Hungary, barely top-10 last weekend.

The aerodynamic changes for this weekend though seem to have unlocked a bit more performance.

“The long runs [in practice] were quite good,” said Hulkenberg. “I felt comfortable in the car and, I think, better than last week.

“The team found some good things and made some improvements there in terms of race pace, so that should hopefully help.

“Tyres is the least of my worries because I think they’re still pretty similar to the last few years and kind of know what to expect – but everything else is obviously going to be new and kind of the first time, so that side is obviously more exciting and a bit more difficult.”

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship 70th Anniversary Grand Prix Qualifying Day Silverstone, England

And none of this will matter if neither of the Mercedes cars hit trouble and Verstappen is as fast as we expect him to be. Hulkenberg, to his credit, is being very realistic on that score – he accepts that keeping Verstappen is “going to be very tough and challenging given all the circumstances”.

The podium is not an impossible target. Hulkenberg has put himself in a great position, in fact everything he’s done so far has enabled the ‘why not dream?’ narrative.

“For me it’s not really about that,” Hulkenberg insisted. “It’s about getting a good race in and hopefully taking some points home for the team.”

Third in qualifying is a wonderful advert for Hulkenberg’s abilities and a reward for a job very well done so far.

But if he is simply outgunned by Verstappen on Sunday it will not be a surprise and should not be held against Hulkenberg as ‘another’ missed podium opportunity.

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