The young German has scored points in every race so far and currently lies above reigning world champion Sebastian Vettel in the drivers’ table, but as he tells us in this exclusive interview, Force India must continue to work hard if they wish to stay at the front...
Q: Nico, you come to Spain fourth in the standings - that almost sounds too good to be true. How are you coping with this sudden prominence?
Nico Hulkenberg: Ha, to be honest there is no huge level of prominence attached to that position. But yes, fourth in the standings for me and third (in the constructors’ standings) for the team has been a really good start to the season. Nobody really expected that, so of course we are really happy to be in this position. But such a position doesn’t come out of the blue: on some occasions we’ve over-performed and whenever there has been an opportunity we’ve grabbed it and we’ve made it happen. So far it’s been great fun! Now we are in this position and of course we don’t want to lose that sweet taste of success.
Q: Three champions in very prominent teams are lining up behind you. Will the combination of Force India and Nico Hulkenberg be the surprise of the season?
NH: I think it’s a bit too early to call it the surprise of the season. Yes, we’ve had a good start, but we’ve completed only four races and there are 15 more to come - that’s quite a task. How does it feel to be in front of three champions? Somehow not too strange! We can explain why we are performing well, so it’s a position that comes from our own merits. We have a good package, a strong engine partner, and we’ve made some good decisions and the right calls strategy-wise.
Q: You came very close to being in a Ferrari cockpit this season, before they opted to bring back Kimi Raikkonen. When looking at how he’s done so far, is there a certain satisfaction?
NH: No, not really. If you look individually, Fernando (Alonso) has beaten me in three races and only once - in Bahrain - we were in front of him. So I think the Ferrari is a strong car and I expect them to have a good season - still.
Q: But are you surprised that Kimi is struggling?
NH: Probably there’s an element of him having to familiarise himself with the team again - and the new car - but I have no idea why he’s struggling more than Fernando does. And no, there is no satisfaction connected to his struggling - just the satisfaction that we’re doing so well.
Q: Your team mate, Sergio Perez, has scored a podium, but you have the advantage in the standings. Would you trade your situation for his?
NH: That’s a tricky one. In some ways yes, and in some ways no. I think I’ve been a bit more consistent - and of course I missed that podium opportunity because I didn’t do a good enough job that weekend. It was possible (to score a podium in Bahrain) and the opportunity was on the table for me, but I made a mistake in qualifying and paid the price on Sunday. Generally I am in a good position. We have a good car, which over very different circuits has performed very well, and as there is still a long way to go there should be an opportunity for me to stick it up there…
Q: …and keep your advantage in the standings?
NH: Oh yes.
Q: You were also linked to Lotus over the off-season. Are you happy to have escaped that temptation?
NH: Ah, that’s a bit nasty. It’s very easy to say ‘yes’ at this point. Lotus has struggled big time so far -they are far away from where they want to be - and I am happy to be where I am now. At Force India we have a very good vibe right now - a real upbeat motivation that is leading us in a very good direction.
Q: Seven of the top ten drivers in the standings drive Mercedes-powered cars. Is it all about the engine? How good is the Force India car?
NH: It’s a very good car; otherwise we wouldn’t be where we are. Sure, you need a good engine package - and no doubt the Mercedes engine was the best package in the first four races - but no, not everything is down to the engine. You also need a good enough car to make such results happen. And that we do have. But now we are entering the crucial time of the season where you have to keep on developing and add performance to the car to make sure we stay ahead of the McLarens and Williams.
Q: Barcelona is traditionally the place where the first big upgrades are introduced. Some teams are speaking of massive changes. Do Force India have enough ammunition to defend?
NH: We have a good platform with the car that we have and now we have to work on the details to make it faster. But there is no night-and-day upgrade that we will have here in Barcelona. Of course there will be some aerodynamic parts as, like always, it’s about the downforce. So hopefully we’re going in the right direction.
Q: How much fun is it for you to drive these 2014 cars? There are very mixed signals coming from the drivers...
NH: Well, the most honest answer that I can give is that it’s a bit slower. The biggest change is the loss in downforce and that the cornering speeds are also slower. The engine power and top speed is very similar, but having less downforce means it is a bit less fun in the car - it’s not as ‘edgy’ or dynamic as it used to be. But still, if you push a car to the limit it’s still fun, especially if you have battles like in Bahrain. That still holds a lot of fun.
Q: You left Force India quite suddenly in 2012. Were there any hard feelings when you returned for 2014?
NH: No, not at all. It was a very warm and welcoming coming back to the team. The first time I visited the factory it was as if I had never left. It was a big hello.
Q: Keeping both McLaren and Red Bull at bay - what does that require?
NH: A lot of hard work, the right decisions and a good job both in the car and from everyone else involved. We are willing to pay that price.
Q: A lot may come down to development speed. Can Force India realistically keep up with the McLarens and Red Bulls?
NH: I would say that with the McLarens we pretty much should be able to compete throughout the season. With the Red Bulls we’ve seen a huge step forward from Bahrain to China already so it might be that they are in front of us already. Red Bull is probably the team with the biggest resources and financial power, so it is really hard to keep up with them. Our main focus is more on the Williams, McLaren, Sauber and Lotus side. If we can beat these guys it’s really good - and if we have a really good day or weekend and we can annoy the big ones, even better.
Q: What would you make you leave Barcelona a happy man on Sunday night?
NH: A finish in the top six.
Q: You’re not dreaming of a podium then?
NH: No, we have to stay realistic. Without having done a lap on this track with the new cars it is impossible to make any predictions. But my gut feeling is that a podium would be tough because there are two cars reserved up there already. So I’m keeping my feet on the ground: top six. And then I’ll go home happy! (laughs)