For many in the Formula 1 paddock, Nico Hulkenberg remains a world champion in waiting. A winner in every category he ever competed in before Formula One racing - and a champion in three of them - he appeared from an early age to be destined for greatness.
Winning the GP2 crown in his rookie season - a feat only matched by Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg - secured a move into F1 racing, and he duly delivered a shock first pole in an uncompetitive Williams in what was his maiden campaign. Despite such triumphs, however, a top line drive has eluded the German thus far. Even so, his incredible combination of pace and consistency has made the paddock sit up and take note.
Following the well-trodden path of most great drivers, Nico Hulkenberg began his career on the kart track. After starting at the tender age of ten back in 1997, within five years Hulkenberg was already making waves. In 2002 he was named German junior karting champion and the following year, after progressing up the ranks, won the German karting championship proper.
Sixteen years earlier, a young Michael Schumacher had clinched the very same title. It was a fact not lost on Schumacher’s legendary manager Willi Weber, who promptly signed up the young lad from Emmerich. By 2004 Hulkenberg had added an Italian Junior Championship to his list of achievements and Weber began looking for a way into single-seater racing for his young protege.
The opening came in the German Formula BMW series where in 2005, aged just 18, Hulkenberg made his debut. Racing for Josef Kaufmann, he won the championship with ease, claiming the title with eight victories from 20 starts. In doing so he followed in the footsteps of Sebastian Vettel, who’d won the series the year before, and namesake Nico Rosberg, who had taken the honours in 2002.
For 2006 he moved to A1GP to compete for Team Germany, and in terms of success it was pretty much the same story. Dominating proceedings, he won nine races and took the title for the German team virtually singlehandedly. Over the course of a single season he remains the most successful driver in the series’ history.
Hulkenberg’s ’06 season also featured outings in German Formula Three series, including one win and five further podiums. In 2007 he made the move up to the fiercely competitive F3 Euroseries. Up against several Formula 1 names of the future, including Kamui Kobayashi, Sebastien Buemi and Romain Grosjean, he acquitted himself well, taking four victories and 72 points on his way to third in the standings.
And in that year’s Formula Masters race at Zolder he was unstoppable, winning by six seconds after starting third on the grid. It secured the attentions of the Williams Formula 1 team, who invited him to test their car over the winter. He impressed - the British team described him as ‘quick and capable’ and promptly signed him up as their test driver. Racking up almost 700 laps from December 2007 to July 2008, Hulkenberg was clearly becoming a valued commodity.
In addition to his test role, he kept his race skills sharp in the 2008 F3 Euroseries, where his persistence paid off. Taking the championship with 85 points, seven wins, seven fastest laps and six pole positions, it was a very strong showing from, aged 21, such a young driver. It was also Hulkenberg’s second junior formulae title in just four seasons.
Hopes of a Williams race seat for 2009 were dashed when the team decided to keep their existing line-up of Rosberg and Kazuki Nakajima. But Hulkenberg remained as test and reserve driver, and over the winter, as well as taking a victory in the GP2 Asia Series, Williams gave him more time in the car than any of his fellow 2009 reserves at other teams got, despite the FIA’s stringent new testing regulations.
But Hulkenberg wasn’t content to just wait in the wings for 2009. The young German’s workload showed no sign of easing as he signed up to race in the main GP2 Series, where again his talent quickly shone through. He took his maiden victory at his home race at the Nurburgring and a further four wins later he was declared champion with an event to spare.
In the background, however, Hulkenberg’s focus remained his Formula 1 dream. At the start of 2009 he moved to England and set about organising his very own ‘work experience’ programme at Williams’ Grove factory, ‘shadowing’ various team members throughout the year. His dedication and loyalty paid off, and in November the team duly announced that he would race for them alongside veteran Rubens Barrichello in 2010.
Hulkenberg made a promising start to his F1 race career, qualifying fifth and scoring his first point with a 10th place at round three in Malaysia. Although he generally struggled to match the far more experienced Barrichello, he impressed with a sixth place in Hungary and a spectacular pole position in mixed track conditions in Brazil. It wasn’t enough to keep him at Williams for 2011, though, and he lost his seat to another rookie, the well-funded Venezuelan, Pastor Maldonado.
Unperturbed, he moved to a test and reserve role with the far more competitive Force India team, where he provided valuable feedback in Friday practice sessions at 14 of the 2011 season’s 19 races and was rewarded with a 2012 race seat with the Mercedes-powered squad. It took several races for Hulkenberg to get back up to speed, but once he did he was a regular points-scorer, often outperforming team mate Paul di Resta by the end of the season to finish 11th in the points. Fourth place in Belgium was the German’s best result of the season, though he might have won the season finale in Brazil were it not for the safety car being deployed whilst he was leading. Hulkenberg’s strong form led to speculation that he might join Ferrari, but he eventually signed for Sauber for 2013.
That switch initially backfired, as the Swiss team’s C32 car struggled out of the box. However, things improved in the season's second half, with Hulkenberg bolstering his growing reputation by taking a superb P3 grid slot in Italy and a hard-earned fourth place in the Korean race. He was courted by Ferrari and then widely tipped to join the highly competitive Lotus team. Ultimately neither deal came to fruition, and he headed back to Force India for 2014.
It proved an inspired choice: while Sauber floundered, Hulkenberg scored points in all of the first ten races - a record only matched by Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso - as he helped Force India carry the fight to McLaren. So impressive was that start that he sat third in the drivers’ championship early on, behind title rivals Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton. He broke into the top five on four occasions, with Monaco a particular highlight given his sensational pass on Kevin Magnussen at Portier. With a top-line driver still not opening up, he opted to stay on at Force India for 2015, combining a third season at the team with a drive for Porsche in the Le Mans 24 Hours race.
That decision paid dividends straight away as he won the French endurance classic at his first attempt; a terrific achievement that boosted his confidence and propelled him to a season-best sixth place in Austria just a week later. The highly rated German would equal that result twice more over the remainder of the campaign, but was overshadowed for the most part by team mate Sergio Perez, who ended up 20 points ahead in the final standings and with another podium finish to his name - something that continued to elude Hulkenberg.
That trend - and his Force India partnership with Perez - carried into 2016. It proved to be the team’s best-ever season, but again top-three finishes escaped Hulkenberg and he opted to move to Renault for the following year and his first drive with a Formula 1 works squad.
There he embraced his role as team leader, in what he knew was a long-term project for the French marque. The consolation for seven race retirements in 2017 was regular top-ten finishes, including four sixth places, and tenth overall in the driver standings.