What now for Nico Hulkenberg as the 2014 pieces finally fall into place?
Sky F1 commentary expert Mark Hughes on why the Sauber driver deserves better, but may not even be on the F1 grid next year
Last Updated: 25/09/13 12:41pm
Nico Hulkenberg was probably the man most disappointed by the news of Kimi Raikkonen's recruitment to Ferrari and the confirmation of Fernando Alonso's continuation there.
The German had been on stand-by as the team's Massa replacement, and Sauber's association with Ferrari had been very much part of the logic behind his move to the Swiss team from Force India last year. Now, with Sergey Sirotkin earmarked for a sponsor-placating seat there next season and Ferrari keen to give its academy driver Jules Bianchi experience in a more competitive car than his current Marussia, it looks as if there is no place at Sauber in 2014 for Hulkenberg.
Their one-season partnership has fallen short of expectations, the 2013 car a long way from being as competitive as the C31 of last year, which took four podiums and a front row start. Only at Monza - where Hulkenberg qualified third and finished fifth - has the C32 looked like recapturing that sort of form. More usually it is to be found solidly in the Q2 midfield part of the grid.
It has been a frustrating year for the 26-year-old driver whose first F1 season was in 2010. Time is slipping by, his career in danger of falling between the cracks. Yet in terms of achievement he has done everything that could reasonably have been asked throughout his career.
A dominant performer in A1 GP, a champion in Euro F3 and GP2, he took a pole position in Brazil for Williams when a wet track provided the perfect opportunity to display his skills. He lost out on continuing there to the PDVSA money that Pastor Maldonado brought with him the following year, treaded water as Force India's third driver in 2011 and rebounded back with a race seat there in 2012, during which time he led the Brazilian Grand Prix on merit.
Everything about his performances suggest that in a competitive car he would be winning grands prix on a regular basis.
He is extremely well thought of up and down the paddock for in addition to his speed he is recognised as intelligent, focussed and of good character. Sauber has sometimes found him a little too demanding for its circumstances, pushing hard for improvements that are not always feasible within its financial constraints. But that's exactly the trait that in a top team is valued as essential for leadership.
Yet there is a realistic chance he may not even be on the 2014 grid. Lotus is in dire need of a top driver, having lost the services of Raikkonen. But cashflow has clearly been a problem there this year and it would be no surprise if the team took a driver who brought money into the team, rather than took it out. Hulkenberg's management is working on a package that may enable him to bring finance to a team, but it's not clear yet whether it has been successful in this. Meanwhile, Felipe Massa is believed to have a budget available.
Hulkenberg's name has been mentioned as a candidate should McLaren not re-sign Sergio Perez. But not by McLaren. The feeling there is that his size and weight (he is one of the tallest and therefore heaviest) could be a bigger disadvantage next year than this.
Although the minimum weight of the 2014 cars has been increased, the early indications are that the extra weight of the turbo and ERS systems and associated cooling is going to more than account for the extra 43kg allowed by the regulations. Because the total weight includes the driver, in theory he should not be disadvantaged by his weight, but if the driver/car combined weight is under the minimum, then the car can be brought up to the limit with ballast - and this gives the advantage of allowing that weight to be placed where it is most advantageous to the car's centre of gravity and front/rear weight distribution. This can be varied from track to track, giving extra flexibility to the car's set up. But if the driver's weight is such that combined with that of the car, less (or no) ballast can be used, then it's an obvious disadvantage. The current generation of cars can generally be built light enough that even the heavier drivers can use ballast, but that may not be the case next year.
Hulkenberg needs to convince teams that the skills he brings more than out-weigh whatever time loss the lack of moveable ballast costs. It would be a sad indictment of the knots F1 has tied itself in if 'The Hulk' is not on the 2014 grid.