Renault Dumping A Blessing In Disguise For Hulkenberg?

Nico Hulkenberg bids adieu to Renault F1 Team at the end of 2019 F1 season after being dumped by the team mid-season
Is being dumped by Renault a blessing in disguise for Nico Hulkenberg? There could be more than one option for him from 2020 onwards. 
  • Renault confirmed Esteban Ocon would be driving for the team alongside Daniel Ricciardo in 2020, leaving Nico Hulkenberg without a seat
  • Hulkenberg’s experience and consistency could be exactly what Haas needs after their struggles in the midfield
  • Moving to Williams means that Hulkenberg’s focus will have to be on building the team back and developing the car

Formula 1’s silly season often feels like a game of musical chairs — when the music stops, there is a mad scramble and some unfortunate drivers may be left without a seat for the next season.

At the 2019 Belgian Grand Prix where Firstpost was reporting from, Renault confirmed Esteban Ocon would be driving for the team alongside Daniel Ricciardo in 2020. This meant that Nico Hulkenberg was left without a seat — a challenging position for any driver.

“Of course I was disappointed when I got the news, but I had the time to digest it. It was a fair and a good process (with Renault), I see the team’s point and I accept the decision. If I agree with it or not, is a different matter. But that’s just racing, that’s life sometimes,” revealed Hulkenberg.

Why Hulkenberg deserves a race seat in 2020

After a very impressive record in junior formula racing, Hulkenberg blasted into Formula 1 in 2010 with Williams. That year, he surprised everyone by clinching pole at the Brazilian Grand Prix. After delivering solid seasons for some of the better mid-field teams (Williams, Force India and Sauber), Hulkenberg moved to Renault, a manufacturer team, in 2017. The objective was clear: To develop the team and challenge for podiums and race wins come 2020.

Unfortunately, the Renault project didn’t taken off as hoped. In 2018, the team could only manage fourth in the overall standings. They had no race wins or podiums — in fact, never even came close to challenging for them. Hulkenberg believes that this situation caused the team’s desire for a change in line-up.

He explained: “This year we have had a very tough year. And with the difficult year we’re having there’s some wish for change, or something has to give, and it contributes a bit to that and leads to this decision.” In fact, as Alain Prost revealed at Spa-Francorchamps, Renault had offered Hulkenberg a year’s extension on his existing contract with the option for the second, but the deal fell through because the driver wanted a two-year extension.

Renault’s championship disappointments are not a reflection of Hulkenberg’s performances in the past three years — rather, the German driver has fought hard and well to lift the team to the front of the competitive midfield. In 2018, Hulkenberg finished in seventh place in the drivers championship — the ‘best of the rest’ position after the drivers from the top three teams. It was his best-ever championship finish in the sport and he scored nearly 60 percent of the team’s points tally. In a broader sense, Hulkenberg has earned a reputation for being a fast, consistent and collaborative driver.

Hulkenberg holds the unique record of ‘most Formula 1 race starts without scoring a podium’ — a record he surely would rather avoid. In an exclusive interview with Firstpost in 2018, he mentioned, “Of course I want to be on the podium… but I am not bothered about the podium subject. It will come one day, but we need to make sure that we do our homework, a good job and it will happen.” That said, a podium seems far out of his sights right now as his future in the sport stands unresolved. Realistically, the possibility of achieving a podium-scoring seat could diminish with his next move.

But, the good news is that the 2020 grid is far from locked out with several racing seats still up for grabs. To quote Hulkenberg: “It’s not too late and there are still seats and options out there, it’s also a matter of what I want and getting a good option and working that out.”

Let’s take a look at the 2020 seat options available for Hulkenberg and the likelihood of them coming true:

Haas seems the likeliest option

Romain Grosjean has not been confirmed for 2020 at Haas, although the Frenchman is “pretty confident” that he will be retained. However, Grosjean has had a spotty record with the team and has been outperformed by teammate Magnussen in 2018 and 2019. Distressingly, the fractious relationship between the drivers meant that they collided on several occasions, costing the team valuable points. As a result, Haas has lost out to competitors in the ultra competitive midfield. In this context, the experience and consistency of Hulkenberg could be exactly what the team needs. Haas boss Gunther Steiner confirmed that they are considering Hulkenberg, saying, “I always said to you, we always said that our dream was always to have a driver with experience, so for sure there’s interest (in Hulkenberg).”

The interesting twist in the tale is that if Hulkenberg moves to Haas, he will have Magnussen as his teammate — who he had a public run-in with at the 2017 Hungarian Grand Prix. However, both drivers seem to have moved on since. Hulkenberg was positive to the idea of pairing up with Magnussen, declaring, “I’d love to see that.” Magnussen downplayed the incident itself, saying, “I am tired, it has been dramatised. There has really been only one incident two years ago.” Haas has also confirmed that the colourful history shared by the two will not affect their decision.

The main concern with Hulkenberg moving to Haas is whether the privateer team can afford Hulkenberg or not, and if earning negotiations are the reason, then why is there a delay in firming up their relationship. Or it could also be that the Liberty Media-owned Formula 1 wishes to play up the suspense and space their announcements rather than revealing them all at one go. The other question is: Is Haas willing to walk away from the incumbent Grosjean, who has been with the team since its inception, knows the car well and brings immense technical experience to the operations — the team’s split tests in the few races before the summer break were Grosjean’s idea. The general belief is that Grosjean is quick, but comes with his own set of whining!

Williams has a vacancy, but is that where he wants to be?

The other team with a vacant seat is Williams — they have a confirmed driver in George Russell, but Robert Kubica’s seat is up for contention. Williams team boss Claire Williams shared that they were looking at the seat and were evaluating a “handful of candidates.” Kubica is still in the running, despite being severely outclassed by Russell all season. The other option is Williams’ reserve driver Nicholas Latifi, who is currently second in the Formula 2 championship and has had three FP1 outings for the team already.

For Hulkenberg to move to Williams, there are two main factors to consider. First, can Williams afford him at a time when they are struggling financially? Running 2020 with Rusell and Kubica or Latifi would be a far more economical option, allowing them to put money into the car (that so desperately needs it) rather than into a driver’s salary. Second, does Hulkenberg want to move to a team like Williams? Their cars are well off the pace from every other team on the grid. Moving to Williams means that Hulkenberg can forget racing his rivals — his focus will have to be on building the team back and developing the car. In a career context, it could mean that he never gets a competitive car again and finally ends his career at Williams, also the team where he first started in the sport.

Alfa Romeo

The team has been the dark horse of this season, with Kimi Raikkonen really showing what the car is capable of even though Antonio Giovinazzi has been struggling. However, Giovinazzi downplayed the situation, saying, “At the moment there is nothing decided. But if I do a good job, there is no reason to think that I will not be in Formula 1 again next year.” Alfa Romeo team boss Frederic Vasseur also agreed that Giovinazzi is now performing solidly — and that “In my view, he is not under pressure. We have to stay calm and patient.” Since Mick Schumacher could be driving another year in Formula 2, it is possible that Alfa Romeo retains Giovinazzi till Schumacher junior is ready for the step-up to Formula 1.

Amid this context, how can Hulkenberg fit in? He had raced for the team previously in 2013 (then Sauber) where he scored nearly 90 percent of the team’s points that season and powered them to a seventh-place finish in the championship. They know he has the speed, but is there a place for him? It is not likely that they will have Hulkenberg in the car for just one season till Schumacher is ready — and Hulkenberg would not be pleased with that kind of uncertainty either.

Red Bull Racing is a long shot

The longest shot is Red Bull Racing — they are seeking for the right driver to partner Max Verstappen in the senior team next season, so they can build their challenges on Ferrari and Mercedes. At Spa, Red Bull boss Christian Horner confirmed that the team would be choosing from their existing pool of three drivers for next season. He said it was “unlikely” that the team would take a driver from outside their development programme. At the same time, Horner kept the window open for an external driver “if we feel that none of the drivers within the pool can get the job done” as they had done for Mark Webber, an external pick.

Simplistically, Hulkenberg’s shot depends on how Alexander Albon performs in the Red Bull over the next few races. Since Albon got off to a good start at Spa (taking P5 despite starting at the back, while Verstappen failed to score points) Hulkenberg’s chances at Red Bull, if any, could only get dimmer as the season proceeds. But then again, Red Bull Racing have been known to make some bold and unpredictable decisions, so one cannot say anything with certainty.

The way forward

Magnussen said something very insightful to the media including Firstpost — that in Formula 1, it was “too random or not whether you get the chance (at a top drive). He shared, “As a driver, you do not have enough control of your destiny of whether you are in a top team. It is more down to other circumstances — but should be down to your own performance, consistency and talent.”

Hulkenberg is in a similar situation. While he is a talented driver with a good reputation in the paddock, teams have their own constraints and priorities, which come into play while making driver decisions. We would love to see him on the F1 grid next season, and Hulkenberg confirmed that F1 is a priority above all other options. But as Fernando Alonso proved, there are green pastures beyond F1 too. And let’s not forget, Hulkenberg won the 24 Hours of Le Mans with Porsche in his maiden attempt in 2015.

This post was first published on Firstpost.

Kunal Shah is an FIA-accredited Formula 1 journalist who has been reporting on Formula 1 for nearly two decades. He worked with the Force India Formula 1 Team for 6 seasons in Marketing, Sponsorship and Commercial roles. As a former single-seater racer, he was responsible for Force India's grassroots talent program, One from a Billion Hunt. Presently, he co-writes a regular Formula 1 column for Firstpost, speaks on Inside Line F1 Podcast & Pits to Podium and produces broadcast/OTT content for NENT Group (Viasport & Viaplay).

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