Nico Hulkenberg may not recognize the significance of his fourth place finish in Korea, he is even playing it down, bet there is no escaping the glaringly obvious fact that every time he sets foot in his car, every time he puts on his helmet, and every time he leaves the pit lane, he is consolidating his soon-to-be-permanent place in the top echelon of the world’s greatest drivers.
Apart from this rather subjective opinion, it is nigh on impossible to sum up Nico’s talent in just a few words. Words are meaningless in Formula One, for actions are what moves a car, a team, and a career forward. In fact, it could be misconstrued as insulting of me just to sum up his talent in mere syllables, but I will make an attempt, in all due respect.
Nico has faced two inversely proportional factors in his Formula One career, in that as he has gained experience in the sport, his teammates’ experience has gone down, and his cars’ ability to perform well on track has gone down. If you were a rookie in F1 and you were racing alongside Rubens Barrichello, a multiple race winner and the sport’s most experienced driver, you would be forgiven if you were slightly apprehensive to take risks, for one mistake would make you look worse that you were already going to look. But it wasn’t Rubens who set pole position in Brazil by more than a second that season. It was the rookie, the one who was already out of the team for 2011, the one who was supposed to be learning, not leading. It was Nico who bagged pole position that weekend, in what would be a career defining performance. His lap of Interlagos in November of 2010 in the dying moments of Q3 is one of the moments we still talk about.
That is what makes Nico great.
In 2012, after a year on the sidelines at Force India and with one years’ experience of F1 racing, Nico was paired with another sophomore driver. More experience himself, less experienced teammate. Considering the job he did at Williams in 2010, expectations were high to say the least.
After matching his teammate in the first half of the season, his performance in Belgium was the result of some inner performance epiphany that carried him through the rest of the season. Leading the Brazilian Grand Prix on merit, in the wet, while fending off the more highly regarded and vastly more experienced Jenson Button isn’t something that happens by accident. It happens as the result of skill meeting opportunity. It wasn’t luck. It was, at the risk of stimulating some gag reflexes, fate.
That is what makes Nico great.
Nico’s results this season speak for themselves. Even when in the anonymity of the deep midfield, he was impressive. He hasn’t had to struggle this much to impress since the early races of the 2010 season, so for him to maintain his composure during those trying times is commendable.
In fact, the juxtaposition of his car’s glaringly obvious doggish qualities against the way he immaculately disguises them is what makes him really remarkable. Not since with Fernando Alonso in Malaysia of last year have we seen a driver out-drive his own car, and even then Fernando’s car wasn’t truly horrible.
If the body weight concerns of late are actually substantive, then there is a serious problem with the sport. Never should a driver be at risk of losing, or at least not obtaining, a seat because of circumstances completely out of his control. If Mclaren seriously think that Nico being on the “heavy” side is reason enough to dismiss him for a drive, then they are making an even bigger mistake than when they turned him down in favor of Perez in 2013 (no offense to Perez, of course, but Nico is in a different league).
This was an attempt to do something I said should be impossible. But that is exactly what Nico has been doing all season. Lotus had better be reading this sometime soon…