x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Year is long enough for Hulkenberg to shift gears

From being without a drive to Sauber, the German has made impressive moves on the grid in a short time.

Nico Hulkenberg will move teams from Force India to Sauber next season.
Nico Hulkenberg will move teams from Force India to Sauber next season.

Two years ago Nico Hulkenberg strode into the paddock at Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi on top of the world.

He had stunned the Formula One fraternity a week earlier as he had given Williams their first pole position in five years, in Brazil, outpacing the likes of Sebastian Vettel, Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton in a qualifying session played out on a damp track.

Hulkenberg's speed in relatively uncompetitive machinery had been the cherry atop an impressive rookie season and, with Abu Dhabi the final stop on the 2010 schedule, a good career in the F1 appeared in the offing.

Then came the bombshell. He was being dropped by Williams and being replaced by Pastor Maldonado, who was bringing in considerable sponsorship funds to the British team from Venezuela.

Roll the clocks forward 24 months to yesterday and the change in fortunes has been spectacular for the 25-year-old German.

He has been a man in demand after a good season with Force India and, after being linked with a number of teams, including Ferrari, it was announced on Wednesday that he will be racing for Sauber, who use engines supplied by the Italian team, in 2013.

Quite the turnaround.

Hulkenberg concedes it has been a roller-coaster period.

"It has been an exciting two years in many ways," he said. "Some lows, some disappointments and some good success.

"Obviously, the difficult bit was the Williams story and losing the seat there after the 2010 season and then surviving 2011 not racing.

"The good thing is I ended up [at Force India] and this year has turned out to be very good, so far, and I am very happy."

Hulkenberg acknowledged that it did cross his mind, two years ago, that he might never again race in F1. "You naturally are a bit worried when you have lost the seat and the time was also pretty late as normally the teams have already chosen their drivers already.

"There were some scares there, but, then, I knew I belonged here but on the sidelines for one year. But, obviously, it was not a super-comfortable situation."

The good news was that Force India gave him a lifeline. The bad news was he had to cool his heels in the pits in 2011; Adrian Sutil and Paul di Resta occupied the team's two race seats.

Hulkenberg had to make do with some occasional Friday practice-session running, in his role as third driver.

Watching the action as a spectator was not something he enjoyed.

"It was very difficult," he said. "Looking at what the 24 guys were doing and having to watch on the sidelines and where I felt I belonged in one of those cars.

"It was not an easy situation. I love Formula One, I love doing this, so I survived somehow. The thought of coming back kept me alive, kept me sharp. It meant I kept on pushing and got the opportunity."

Patience did pay off for Hulkenberg. He replaced Sutil this season, and his stock has risen again in F1. He sits 12th in the championship on 49 points, five points more than his teammate Di Resta; six more than Michael Schumacher and 16 more than Maldonado, who took his place at Williams.

"The last few races have been very strong, all three in the points: sixth, seventh, eighth. We had a good race in Spa where we came fourth which, on paper, is our most successful race, but we have had a lot of good moments."

Despite his good form with the team, Hulkenberg has decided to go to pastures new by moving to Sauber.

Hulkenberg held talks with Ferrari before his move to Sauber, and he was thought to be on the radar of McLaren-Mercedes before they plumped for Sergio Perez, the man he is replacing.

"It was a hard decision," Hulkenberg said of leaving the team who are based in Northamptonshire, England. "Leaving this team, who I really like … I am very close with my boys here, the mechanics, and I have a very good relationship with the team.

"So, from that point of view, it is not easy. It is life sometimes: you decide to take a new challenge and move on, and that is what I have done."

As to his reasoning for moving from one team who have never won a grand prix to a team in the same situation, he added: "They have been very strong this year for podiums." He noted that in Malaysia, in March, Perez "missed the win by a very narrow margin only, so that is why. Otherwise, I would not have made the decision if I thought it wasn't the right one."

With only Sunday's race and the events in the United States and Brazil to come before his tenure ends at Force India, one could forgive Hulkenberg for easing back, now his future is settled.

But the German does not see it that way and promises to drive as he did in the 2010 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix when he was racing for his future. "I am fully motivated and will give everything," he vows.

gcaygill@thenational.ae

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