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Exclusive Nico Hulkenberg Q&A: Fight for fourth will go to the wire

01 Sep 2016

Mercedes may have a firm grip on P1 in the constructors’ championship, but elsewhere the battles are raging, with Force India’s scintillating form in Belgium last weekend helping them leapfrog rivals Williams for fourth place in the standings. But can the Silverstone-based team maintain that historically high position until the end of the season - and more importantly, can they do so without harming their 2017 chances? Nico Hulkenberg, fresh from a season-best fourth place finish in Spa, has his say...

Q: Nico, you had an incredible race in Spa. Again you could almost smell the podium, but yet again it didn’t happen. Can you talk us through your race?

Nico Hulkenberg: To be honest, yes it looked promising, but that podium smell was strong only until lap six! (Laughs) So I told myself not to waste a thought on a podium - there are still 38 more laps to go - because when the safety car came out the advantage I had went up in smoke. The gap that I was able to build in the first six laps simply vanished and the red flag reset the race. It was a fresh start from there and it helped for example Daniel (Ricciardo), who got a pit stop for free. And then suddenly there was Lewis (Hamilton) right behind me - and I didn’t have that 10- or 15-second cushion to keep them behind. So yes, at first it was a bit disappointing after I’d had a super start.

Q: Were you surprised that Lewis was able to snatch your place and pull clear by seven seconds?

NH: Actually I was not too surprised by his race - I was expecting that from him. And the safety car and the red flag pretty much played to his advantage as well. So in a way I was a bit disappointed that it was only P3 for him and not the very front, as my guess is that people got out of his way as he moved through the field. 

Q: Along with your team mate’s fifth place, Force India bagged 22 points last weekend - following on from that record 23 the pair of you secured in Monaco. It means the team is now fourth in the table - but are you really the fourth best team on the grid?

NH: The numbers don’t lie! (Laughs) Yes, we have to confirm that in eight more races. Yes, Sunday in Spa was a super day for us: we did a great job - the whole team. Everything worked smoothly. But we also must not forget that Ferrari and one Red Bull was struggling - and we were right there to pick up the pieces. We got the job done and got rewarded with 22 points. I have no illusions that the three front-running teams have disappeared into the distance - quite some distance - but that is not our competition. We focus on Williams and McLaren. McLaren is coming closer and closer. Their engine upgrade in Spa was a pretty good step forward and Fernando (Alonso) had some pretty good moments. He really had good pace. So right now I think it is close between us, McLaren and Williams. But I am also convinced that we can consolidate that fourth place. But that means producing eight more very good races - no mistakes and no glitches!

Q: Team principal Vijay Mallya said some weeks ago that the team is already deep into development of the 2017 car, so the current high is not a case of you forsaking the future for a good 2016 result. By contrast, Felipe Massa said recently that Williams have been working on their 2017 car for two months - and it shows in their current results. Why are Force India suddenly doing so well now?

NH: It’s not suddenly. Since Barcelona - since we brought that huge upgrade - our form has skyrocketed. I deliberately used that word! (Laughs) Monaco was really good, Montreal was good, Baku was good. We had a lot of good races ever since Barcelona. Yes, the beginning of the season was tough, but that was only the first four races. After that we’ve managed to turn things around. That Barcelona upgrade really delivered.

Q: Are you surprised that Williams are struggling so much - that there is the impression that they are slipping back?

NH: I don’t think that they are slipping back. It is more a matter of us catching up. Maybe they are just standing still - but then standing still in F1 means going backwards! But my guess is that some of the remaining eight tracks will play to their advantage - and some to ours. So I think for P4 overall it will be a race down to the wire.

Q: Twenty-three points in Monaco and 22 in Spa: that means Force India have made it big on two completely different tracks. Is that a good sign for this weekend in Monza - and in two weeks’ time in Singapore?

NH: I have big confidence in our car, in our package. In the end I believe that we will be competitive on all the eight tracks that we are going to. We have developed that car into a really good ‘all-rounder’. We are competitive on street circuits and low-downforce tracks - and last year we have also been competitive here in Monza. So there is no reason why we shouldn’t be competitive this weekend. We are well equipped. 

Q: You’ve already committed to Force India for 2017. Checo [Perez] hasn’t - yet. Is he your preferred team mate?

NH: Yes, I would want to see him stay. We are a good ‘couple’ - probably the best ‘odd couple’ in F1. (Laughs) It is fun with him - and he is a big challenge. We are pushing each other hard all the time - that also makes for a good team mate. He has developed pretty well in the last couple of years and is now a very serious competitor. So yes, I would like to him stay.

Q: So if a driver’s not going to Mercedes, Red Bull Racing or Ferrari, then Force India seems the next best place to be?

NH: Yes, it is a very good place to be. Obviously 2017 is a bit of an unknown territory. It’s some sort of lottery as to who’s got it right and who hasn't, so it will have to be seen who’s got the lucky punch and who’s a complete failure. I am happy where I am, because I also think that the drivers have contributed to the journey of this team - to where we are now. So I am happy to stay on board.

Q: Right now Force India are on a high - but what about next year? How much have you already seen of your 2017 car?

NH: To be honest, not much. I have seen pictures, so visually I have an idea of how it will look. The engineers said that we will definitely go faster. From an aero point of view there will be much more downforce - and the big question for me right now is the tyres. My guess is that we drivers will have to reset our reference points a bit. The car will be so much wider at the back. Just take Monaco: Right now we all have a good idea of how close you can go to the barriers - with the new wider cars it will be a completely new learning curve. We have to readjust.

Q: So on tracks like Monaco and Singapore will overtaking be even more difficult?

NH: Yes, it will be harder.

Q: The car will be pretty different, the tyres will be different - and the winter testing is limited to the same amount as this season. Is that enough?

NH: It is never enough! So it will be learning by doing - work and progress. (Laughs) The learning process with these cars will go far beyond just winter testing. 

Q: Looking at this weekend, you and Checo were both in the points here last year, and you have both have traditionally done well at Monza with other teams - does that point towards another points bonanza on Sunday?

NH: I think so - at least I hope so! Sure, what we’ve earned in Spa cannot be translated to here – we still have to earn it again. But our package should also be competitive here. And between last weekend and this, there was little time to make leaps forward - for us, and more importantly, for the others. The aim is to leave Milan on Sunday still being in P4.