Pop quiz: which Formula 1 driver has the most grand prix starts that didn’t translate into a podium finish?
“Hey, wait a minute!” many of you will subconsciously exclaim right away, given the headline above. “Surely you’re not seriously equating this curiously-worded stat to the other, much more meaningful stat in question?”
I’m not. But humour me for now. The answer is Fernando Alonso, who has had 257 starts that weren’t converted into podiums. He will add to that number this year unless he somehow just keeps finishing third every time in increasingly improbable circumstances.
Obviously, that number says nothing about Alonso’s skill or ability to deliver under pressure. All it says are two things – one, he’s been rated highly enough for long enough to rack up this many races, and two, he maybe should’ve made some different decisions along the way in terms of which contracts he signed.
And wouldn’t you know it, both of those things apply to Nico Hulkenberg, the holder of the unenviable ‘most career starts without a podium’ record.
Hulkenberg’s back on the F1 grid this year but with a team that likewise hasn’t been on the podium ever. Given he’s 35, the likelihood is quite high that he will end his career podium-less – although he did nearly end the wait during the most recent race weekend.
As the red flag came out in Melbourne, Hulkenberg was fourth, behind a soon-to-be-penalised Carlos Sainz. If that red flag was a safety car – even if that red flag just came a bit later – there’s your podium. Hulkenberg, obviously, had no role to play in how the race was suspended and the fine margins that decided between third place and seventh.
And that’s a big part of the situation. But this is not to re-litigate all of Hulkenberg’s podium opportunities, which ones he fumbled (plenty of those) and which ones he was robbed of (also not hard to find). What feels misunderstood among those things is the question of rate. It is not zero for 184 – not really.
For those 184 starts, there were 183 starts by team-mates alongside him – he was the sole Force India representative in the 2014 Malaysian Grand Prix due to a gearbox failure on the other side.
Out of those 183, there were four podiums – each by Sergio Perez in the period between 2014 and 2016 at Force India. If we assume Hulkenberg got podium opportunities at the same rate (and assume certain other things I won’t bore you with), that would mean an average 2% probability of a podium in any given race.
That obviously doesn’t feel like a lot – but take a driver, give him 184 starts with that podium finish probability for each, and in 98.3% of cases he scores at least one podium.
Can luck alone explain ending up in the other 1.7%? Sure. Absolutely. It’s a tempting explanation, too, given that Perez didn’t have a clear edge over Hulkenberg over their three years together – just the 12 points between them.
Mind you, even writing this obviously pro-Hulkenberg column I can’t convince myself luck is an exhaustive explanation. Clearly, Hulkenberg’s relative unsuitability to the tyre demands that happened to condition the F1 era he’s been racing in played a part. That won’t help you on Sundays but will be less of a hindrance on Saturdays, which is reflected in Hulkenberg’s four top-three starts.
And he’s obviously made his share of mistakes while on for potentially massive results – though whether they have been frequent and glaring enough to suggest an underlying loss of focus under pressure feels like a question that would require a much bigger sample size.
In any case, a luckless, slightly unadaptable driver who perhaps isn’t ‘clutch’ and definitely made some moves that hurt his chances of a podium – like the 2013 move to Sauber, whose C32 he still very nearly dragged to a top-three finish, or bailing on Force India right before it hit its peak under Vijay Mallya? That’s all fair, even if there was some logic behind those moves when he made them. But ‘serial choker’? There’s just not the case for it.
Look, it’s understandably a tempting way to look at things, in the context of 14 of the current 20 drivers on the F1 grid being podium finishers. The remaining six include Hulkenberg, three rookies, a sophomore and a third-year. Those who stick around long enough get their moment in the sun – Hulkenberg hasn’t. Isn’t that damning?
Well, let’s even take pure probability out of it and look at the quality of the equipment on offer. And let’s take the whole grid, except for the rookies.
As a potential measure of ‘how good they’ve had it’, let’s take the car’s points-scoring record – what it accrued in the season as a share of the total possible points on offer – and take the average of every start for every driver.
The higher the number the theoretically more competitive the machinery they’ve had in their F1 career on average.
Team’s points share per every start, average (excluding rookies)
Lewis Hamilton 63.8%
Max Verstappen 47.2%
Valtteri Bottas 45.3%
Charles Leclerc 33.6%
Fernando Alonso 29.1%
Sergio Perez 26.2%
Lando Norris 21.1%
Carlos Sainz 21.1%
Alex Albon 20.3%
Esteban Ocon 16.3%
George Russell 16.2%
Pierre Gasly 12.6%
Nico Hulkenberg 12.4%
Lance Stroll 9.9%
Yuki Tsunoda 8.6%
Kevin Magnussen 6.3%
Zhou Guanyu 5.3%
As a disclaimer, for the love of everything that’s holy, this is not a dataset intended to fuel more Lewis Hamilton vs Max Verstappen debates.
Hulkenberg’s predictably towards the bottom here, but still ahead of the likes of podium finishers Lance Stroll and Kevin Magnussen. Though, by this metric, he’s never had any cars for a full season as good as the 2020 ‘pink Mercedes’ at Stroll’s disposal (or the current Aston).
And it is also clear that Hulkenberg is made to look worse in the above table by the fact he’s good at points-scoring. So let’s exclude/minimise the impact of the driver themselves, and look instead at team-mate podiums.
Team-mate podiums per 100 starts (excluding rookies)
Lewis Hamilton 49.8
Valtteri Bottas 40.9
Alex Albon 25.8
Max Verstappen 23.5
Charles Leclerc 21.9
Sergio Perez 17.2
George Russell 11.8
Fernando Alonso 9.2
Carlos Sainz 7.9
Lance Stroll 4.8
Pierre Gasly 4.5
Lando Norris 3.5
Esteban Ocon 3.5
Nico Hulkenberg 2.2
Yuki Tsunoda 2.2
Kevin Magnussen 0.7
Zhou Guanyu 0
The exact match between Hulkenberg’s number and Tsunoda’s suggests the quality of the machinery available to Hulkenberg in his career equals out to a 2021-22 AlphaTauri. That’s probably a stretch – but it doesn’t feel that far off the truth.
It probably would’ve been fairest, on the balance of overall F1 achievement, for Hulkenberg to get that Melbourne podium. His start to life at Haas is clear evidence of that – it maybe is too early to do victory laps given it’s been three races and Magnussen finished ahead in two of them, but Hulkenberg’s spectacular turn of single-lap pace has been impossible to ignore. And it fits very neatly into the patterns of what has been a really good career.
But F1 podiums, of course, aren’t a lifetime achievement award.
Another pop quiz to close things out – which three NBA players have missed the most shots in the playoffs? That’ll be LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan. You may have heard of them.
Longevity is nothing to be scoffed at. Being in demand is nothing to be scoffed at. Being asked again and again to take the shot shows you’re doing something right.
None of Hulkenberg’s F1 ‘shots’ have brought silverware to his teams. But they bring him back again and again. And, as a rule, he doesn’t leave them regretting it.