Nico Hulkenberg says he’s “keen but not desperate” for further opportunities to race in Formula 1. after making his return after 18 months out with two stand-in outings for Sebastian Vettel at Aston Martin.
The 34-year-old was given a late call-up for the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix after Vettel tested positive for COVID-19 and finished 17th. He stayed in the seat for the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix and took 12th place.
Aston Martin said on Thursday that Vettel will return for the Australian Grand Prix, meaning that Hulkenberg will return to the subs bench and his role as the team’s reserve driver.
Hulkenberg hasn’t had a full-time drive in F1 since being dropped by Renault at the end of 2019 in favour of Esteban Ocon, but this was his fifth race as a stand-in following three outings for the team in its Racing Point guise in 2020. All were down to drivers testing positive for COVID-19.
“Of course, I miss racing – some days more, some days less,” said Hulkenberg. “I think that’s natural.
“But also, I’m keen on racing. Keen, but not desperate if it’s not to be.
“Anyway, I was mentally done with it [at the end of 2019] and obviously these things now because of coronavirus happened in 2020 and now. Who knows what else might happen this year?
“But I think it’s quite tricky and difficult for the future to get a drive. But if there’s an opportunity, call me.”
It’s possible the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, Hulkenberg’s 181st in F1, was his last. But with COVID-19 still preventing drivers entering the paddock even if they feel fit to race – something that is increasingly being questioned – there remains an increased chance of reserves being called upon.
Hulkenberg is one of only 24 drivers who so far have real-world experience of this new generation of F1 cars – the other ‘spares’ being Alfa Romeo reserve Robert Kubica, Haas reserve Pietro Fittipaldi and Nikita Mazepin. He therefore has a value that could even extend to another team wanting to take him on loan should they need a stand-in.
His performances in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia showed that value. In Bahrain he outqualified Stroll but had a difficult race with an early lock-up and off-track moment, but brought the car home cleanly.
In Saudi Arabia, he couldn’t join Stroll in Q2, but drove a decent race in an uncompetitive car, having started on hards in a race where that strategy was compromised by the safety car being deployed on lap 16.
He also didn’t appear to suffer from not being at full race fitness, despite his concern heading into the race in Jeddah that it might prove physically challenging.
“Actually, no,” said Hulkenberg when asked if the race was one of the toughest of his career physically. “Maybe I’m fitter than expected, or it’s not so bad.
“But I had tougher races, in the heat especially. So it was better than expected.
“Apart from that, I’m also very happy about my race. It was clean, it was faultless, I think I did everything I could with the car I had.
“Obviously the early safety car was really compromising my race as I was on the hard going for a long stint, so we lost out there. It was unfortunate, but that’s racing, I guess. Otherwise it was very good.”
Hulkenberg’s suggestion that he’s “keen, not desperate” to race also underlines what makes him such a good reserve driver. The German appears to be at peace with his F1 career and already accepted it was likely a closed chapter at the end of 2019, so it stands to reason that he doesn’t dive into any reserve opportunities desperate to prove himself – and therefore at risk of overdriving or placing his own ambitions above that of the team.
Conversely, it might also be an argument against him being in consideration for a full-time drive. While he’s certainly capable of doing a good job in F1 with a good CV despite the unfortunate record of most starts without a podium finish, blending experience with still having a good few years potentially left in him at this level, it’s perhaps not the be-all and end-all for him as it once was.
His lack of racing outings outside of F1 since losing his regular seat also suggests that he has other priorities in life. He tested an IndyCar for the Arrow SP McLaren team at Barber Motorsports Park last October and impressed the team, but despite the possibility of further outings and being in consideration for its plans to expand to a third full-time entry he removed himself from contention for “personal reasons”.
Hulkenberg hasn’t elaborated on those reasons, but perhaps there are clues in his personal life given he became a father last year – which could mean he was either unwilling to relocate to the United States for a large part of the year or take the safety risks associated with oval racing. Or maybe there are other reasons for it that he’s under no obligation to elaborate on.
It also remains to be seen whether other opportunities are on the table for him, particularly in sportscars. He was set to make an appearance in Germany’s ADAC GT Masters Championship in 2020 driving a Lamborghini Huracan GT3 Evo for the curiously-named Team mcchip-dkr before that was called off.
He also has a Le Mans 24 Hours victory to his name for Porsche in 2015, meaning that he has the track record to be a good candidate for a drive in the burgeoning hypercar/LMD-H ranks should an opportunity arise.
In the meantime, as Hulkenberg suggests, giving him a call should you need a proven, experienced F1 driver – and one with experience of the 2022 cars – would be a good idea. And he could still do a good job in a permanent seat.
But if it is a full-time driver you are looking for, it would perhaps be more logical to look to the next generation of F1 aspirants – notably reigning Formula 2 champion Oscar Piastri – with a view to the long-term.