x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Fifth-place Nico Hulkenberg the true star of Italian Grand Prix

To finish fifth and behind the Red Bulls and Ferraris was a great effort, and proves he is destined for more in a good car, writes Graham Caygill.

A fifth-place show in a poor car and competing with stalwarts means Sauber's Nico Hulkenberg has a bright future ahead of him. Alexander Klein / AFP
A fifth-place show in a poor car and competing with stalwarts means Sauber's Nico Hulkenberg has a bright future ahead of him. Alexander Klein / AFP

It would be easy to overlook the best drive of the race in Italy.

Sebastian Vettel provided his latest consummate display of mistake-free artistry at the front in his Red Bull Racing car, and the question now is when, rather than if, the German claims his fourth successive championship.

Fernando Alonso again extracted from his Ferrari everything it had to give to take second ahead of the second Red Bull, and Lewis Hamilton and Kimi Raikkonen both charged hard through the pack after suffering problems, overtaking numerous cars, as they finished ninth and 11th, respectively.

But Nico Hulkenberg, was the real star of the show at Monza.

To finish fifth and be the best of the rest behind the Red Bulls and Ferraris was a fantastic effort, and demonstrated once again that the German driver is more than a little good and deserves to be driving much better machinery than what he has had to put up with thus far in his Fomula One career.

The sign of a great driver is maximising their opportunities.

Hulkenberg has had few chances to shine since joining Sauber this season, with the Swiss team taking a step backwards in performance as they struggle with finances after an impressive 2012 that had seen the team score four podium finishes.

The fact Hulkenberg, 26, had seven points from the first 11 races, which were all the points won in the name of Sauber, with Esteban Gutierrez pointless, illuminates the disappointing year it has been for him.

But then something clicked with the C32 chassis at Monza.

The Ferrari-powered car appeared more agreeable around the long straights and chicanes than elsewhere.

It would be easy to credit Hulkenberg's form to Sauber simply having a better car, but Gutierrez failed to get out of the first part of qualifying, and was more than half-a-second off his teammate.

This was all about Hulkenberg. His qualifying lap of one minute, 24.065 seconds was superb and gave him the third spot on the grid, with only the Red Bulls of Vettel and Mark Webber quicker.

Notably, Hulkenberg was the only driver in the top seven to do just one flying lap in the final part of qualifying, so he had no margin for error, yet still outperformed everyone who was not Vettel or Webber.

Putting together one super lap was impressive, but to do it 53 times in the race?

A tough ask, but Hulkenberg, once he had recovered from a slow start that saw him fall behind the Ferraris going into the first corner, slotted into fifth place, and that is where he would still be, come the end of the race.

Not obviously spectacular, but beating both Mercedes-GP cars, Lotuses, McLaren-Mercedes and Force Indias in a car that is eighth in the constructors' championship was proof of a fantastic peformance. It really should not come as a surprise.

Hulkenberg has never had a race-winning car in F1 since he made his debut with Williams, in 2010.

But in the wet of Brazil in that season he took an average Williams and put it on pole position.

Last season, again in Brazil, he capitalised on mixed conditions to run at the front with the McLarens in his Force India.

Yes, he spoilt that performance by spinning into Hamilton while fighting for first, but the fact he was even in the position to be challenging for a victory in a middle-of-the-field car should not be lost.

Hulkenberg shone in the second half of last season as he consistently outperformed Paul di Resta and it did look as if a top drive awaited him. But McLaren chose Sergio Perez and Ferrari decided to stick with Felipe Massa, meaning Hulkenberg missed out and instead made the move to Sauber, which in hindsight has proven to be a backwards step.

But 12 months on, a similar situation has presented itself. Hulkenberg is in contention along with Massa and Raikkonen for the second Ferrari seat, and there is also a link with Lotus.

Ferrari would be the ideal scenario, but the speculation in Italy is that Raikkonen is favourite to return to Ferrari, where he won his sole world title, in 2007.

If Raikkonen does end up back at Ferrari then that opens up his seat at Lotus, and a team that have won once in 2013 and challenged at the front regularly would still be a step up for Hulkenberg.

His talent deserves better than what he has at present and hopefully he will have that come next year.

Great drivers can still make a difference in F1. Hulkenberg demonstrated that on Sunday.

gcaygill@thenational.ae

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