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GP Week : Issue 192
21 GPWEEK.com // 21 GPWEEK.com // PARTNERS: OPINION Nico Hulkenberg, one of the most talented drivers on the grid today, is at risk of falling off the Formula One map altogether if the recent talk about heavier drivers being left on the sidelines in 2014 is to believed. The chatter centred on how taller, heavier drivers like Hulkenberg could be a disadvantage next year with the new engines, which are turning out to be heavier than teams had anticipated. It will be challenging for teams to meet the absolute maximum weight limit – despite it being raised – forcing them to run lighter smaller, lighter drivers. I feel for Nico, I really do. He has done everything he needs to secure a top drive but somehow always seems to draw the short straw. After a promising junior career, Hulkenberg made his Formula One debut in 2010 with Williams. He put in impressive performances that year, most notably in qualifying for the Brazilian Grand Prix, when he read the treacherous conditions perfectly to put his car on pole with a superlative lap on a damp track. But at the end of the year the talented rookie was dropped by the former world champions in favour of the cash-rich Venezuelan Pastor Maldonado, who delivered sacks of petro-dollars to the Grove racers in the form of millions of dollars of sponsorship from state-owned oil company PDVSA. As a result, Hulkenberg was relegated to the sidelines, spending a year as Force India’s reserve driver. A second opportunity came knocking when Force India promoted him to a full-time race seat in place of compatriot Adrian Sutil. Once again the Hulk impressed, and he was on course to win his (and Force India’s) maiden race at the season-ending Brazilian Grand Prix – again in the wet – until a move on Lewis Hamilton for the lead ended in tears, with the McLaren driver being forced to retire though Hulkenberg still came home a strong fifth. There is a rule of thumb in Formula One that the best drivers generally shine in the wet, and all the more so in uncompetitive machinery. The rain acts as a leveller, and driver confidence, the ability to feel the car, to tease the grip from the greasy track surface, and supreme car control are all at a premium. Ayrton Senna shone in the wet on numerous occasions, most notably at Monaco in 1984 and Donington Park in 1993. Michael Schumacher left rivals floundering in his wake to win the Spanish Grand Prix by a country mile in 1996. And here was Hulkenberg doing the same at the Brazilian Grand Prix in 2012. Sure, he made a mistake that ended his hopes of victory but the talent was plain for all to see. He was linked to Ferrari that year, rumoured to be one of the drivers in the running to replace the struggling Felipe Massa. But Ferrari gave Massa a stay of execution and the call never came. Instead, Hulkenberg chose to sign with Sauber and though it was a sideways move, from one midfield team to another, there was logic behind it. Force India had had a strong 2012, but Sauber scored four podiums over the course of the season. There was no reason why Sauber wouldn’t have been able to repeat that form this year, given the stability of the rules, and so wanting the chance to fight for podiums, Hulkenberg jumped ship. There was also the Ferrari connection – Formula One’s glamour team have tended to use engine customers Sauber as a B-team for some years, and Hulkenberg should have been ideally placed to move to the Scuderia if Massa failed to turn around his sub-par form. But Hulkenberg once again drew the short straw, as Sauber’s 2013 car has largely been uncompetitive. A resource crunch at Hinwil has made matters worse. Despite having figured out what was wrong with their 2013 challenger, the team were unable to bring upgrades to fix the problem for most of the season. Only recently have things improved, with money from a new deal with a group of Russian investors starting to flow, and the car showing a marked improvement in form that has been reflected in the results. Typically, Hulkenberg has turned adversity into opportunity, qualifying a headline-grabbing third at the Italian Grand Prix. Hulkenberg’s timing was impeccable, as Ferrari were at that point in the final stages of deciding their driver line-up for next year. In fact, he already had a contract from the team on the table, only for the team to reach an agreement – reported to have been struck on the Sunday night/Monday morning following the Italian Grand Prix – with Kimi Raikkonen. Denied a drive with a top team yet again, Hulkenberg’s best shot at moving up the grid now is with Lotus, replacing Raikkonen. Team principal Eric Boullier has openly said that both Hulkenberg and Massa are the top candidates to replace Raikkonen, and that talent and not weight will be the deciding factor in who gets the drive. But there’s a catch. Lotus, which lost Raikkonen to Ferrari as they struggled to pay his wages, is yet to close a financing deal agreed with a consortium of investors earlier this summer, and Boullier insists that the team cannot pick the driver they want until that is out of the way. For his part, Hulkenberg has given Lotus until the end of the month to clarify whether or not he will get the drive, and his options outside of Enstone look pretty limited. I hope, for the Hulk’s sake, that the Enstone racers can find a solution by then, and that Nico doesn’t end up drawing the short straw yet again. OPINION ABHISHEK TAKLE Contributing Writer INCREDIblE, buT TOO MuCH Hulk?