ABU DHABI // Many people milling around the Formula One paddock at the Yas Marina Circuit yesterday made for tired-looking figures.
An exhausting 19-race season reaches its climax with Sunday's Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, which completes a particularly gruelling seven-week period of five races outside of Europe, the home of all the 12 teams in F1.
But one person who still looked fresh-faced as he strode around yesterday was Nico Hulkenberg, who is enjoying a strong ending to his first year in the highest echelon of motorsport.
The 23-year-old German made the headlines last weekend by taking pole position at the Brazilian Grand Prix in his Williams-Cosworth, briefly overshadowing the championship contenders.
"I am kind of happy and sad, a bit of both, that the season is ending," he told The National yesterday. "It has been a long season but we are here to race and we love racing. It is only a two-month break, so it is not too bad, but still I will be looking forward to when testing begins again next year after the break."
Having graduated from GP2, in which he was champion last year, there were high expectations for the man from Germany to follow in the footsteps of compatriots Michael Schumacher and Sebastian Vettel and make a strong entry into the sport.
That was not the case and it took until the 12th race in Hungary for him to score his first championship points as he finished sixth at the Hungaroring.
Of how he felt his year had gone, he said: "I was not so happy with first part of season, it was quite tough it was not as I wished and as the team wished. Obviously I have done some mistakes as a rookie.
"But since Montreal [for the Canadian Grand Prix in June] the second half of the season has been good with a steep learning curve and I am pleased with how I did."
Being a newcomer to F1 is especially difficult these days as there is no testing during the season due to cost-cutting regulations, so Hulkenberg has had to learn as he has gone along at each race.
"It is not easy for sure with no testing, but it is the situation for all the rookies and we can't change it," he said.
Looking back at his campaign, it is not surprising that qualifying in pole in Sao Paulo is the high point, though there were other moments.
"It [Brazil] was probably the biggest highlight, Monza [Italy, where he was seventh] was a very good weekend for me and in Singapore [where he was sixth] I had a strong race. The second half of the season was strong for me in my point of view, but for sure Brazil was the best moment."
That pole in drying track conditions in Brazil did came as a shock to him as his team did not tell him just how quickly he was going.
"It felt very good to be honest how I was going, but I have that feeling before and been wrong," he said. "There have been times before in qualifying where I have done a fantastic lap and I think that is the fastest I can go in that car right now only for my engineer to come on the radio and say you are P8 or P9 and you are like 'ah, what can I do?'
"This time he told me before the last lap that I had a good pace, but he did not tell me that I had P1 already and I was able to put together another clean lap and it was a great feeling to know I was fastest."
Hulkenberg's place with the Williams team is not yet secured for next season as the British team try to confirm funding and their revenue availability as they have lost sponsors during the season.
But having had a taste of F1, Hulkenberg is unequivocal on what his goal is for next year.
"There is still no news from Williams but obviously for me the most important thing is to be in Formula One in 2011."