Hulkenberg’s time at Renault could be coming to an end
Nico Hulkenberg has been with Renault for two and a half years now, but despite having factory backing, he hasn’t taken his career to the next level.
Regarded as one of the best drivers never to have been given a top drive, Hulkenberg’s shot at a factory drive arrived in 2017.
The German was impressive in his early years, consistently achieving strong results in weaker cars, and became a dependable driver for the likes of Force India and Sauber.
These results caught the eye of Ferrari and the Scuderia briefly considered him as a replacement for the outgoing Felipe Massa before re-signing Kimi Raikkonen for 2014.
A final shot with a factory team
It seemed Hulkenberg had missed his shot at the big time but when Renault decided they needed to change drivers for 2017, they came calling at the 32-year-old’s door.
Signing Hulkenberg was indeed a wise choice for Renault. He is quick, rarely makes mistakes and will consistently score points when the opportunity arises.
It also appeared to be a great move for the German, moving to a team who were focused on re-building so they could put themselves in a position to fight for wins and titles once again.
Not gone to plan
Unfortunately, things have not gone to plan for either party.
Renault have failed to get themselves out of the midfield since their return to F1, regularly struggling with their engine and finding themselves without the downforce levels of the likes of Mercedes and Red Bull.
Hulkenberg, who has the unfortunate record of most Grand Prix starts without a podium, had hoped his move to the French team would have at some point resulted in a to three finish, but he is yet to do so.
Instead, he has only managed a best result of fifth – at the 2018 German Grand Prix – since joining the French marque.
Although results haven’t gone his way, Hulkenberg has been able to put that down to the fact that his Renault just simply wasn’t quick enough.
Ricciardo has added pressure
In 2017 and 2018 he was faster than both his teammates – Joylon Palmer and Carlos Sainz Jr -although Sainz Jr was much closer to him than Palmer had ever been, but this year he has Ricciardo on the other side of the garage – a driver who has won races and is a proven, quality racer from his time at Red Bull.
Now up against a driver who has victories to his name, Hulkenberg has found increased pressure in order to prove he is fast enough to be at the front of an F1 grid and that he is simply being held back by his machinery.
It was a good start for the German, and he appeared to be slightly faster than his Australian teammate at the beginning of the season, but after Ricciardo got to grips with his car, he has proved to be the faster of the two.
They both have the same number of points finishes this term but it is Ricciardo who has scored more.
They are only separated by five points but it could have been more had Ricciardo not had so many reliability issues.
Although it is not ideal being beaten by your teammate, Hulkenberg would argue that it isn’t the end of the world as the margins have been small and Ricciardo is a proven race winner.
With such a small amount of time between the pair, the German can argue that given a winning car, he too would also have the potential to win races.
Missed opportunity in Germany
But his biggest opportunity this year has also potentially become the biggest dent to his career.
In a rain swept German Grand Prix at Hockenheim, Hulkenberg took advantage of some strong strategy calls and got himself in to second place, running behind the Red Bull of Max Verstappen.
It looked like he could be about to put an end to his non-podium finishing record, and even when he fell to fourth there was still the feeling he could get back into the top three, but it then went horribly wrong.
He went off the track on the penultimate corner and found himself on the slippy drag strip. He aquaplaned into the gravel, hit the barriers and retired from the race.
A simple driver error that a number of others made during the same race, but one that could pay a heavy price for Hulkenberg.
With his contract expiring at the end of the year, a podium at Germany would have instantly earn him a new contract but his retirement from such a strong position only raised further questions about whether he should remain with the French team.
Renault have options
Renault have a number of other candidates to consider and would be silly not to search the market, especially as there are plenty of young drivers with potential searching for a drive.
Esteban Ocon is one potential candidate for Renault if he doesn’t get a shot at Mercedes. Having a French driver in the team would be a big hit for Renault and Ocon has shown from his time at Force India that he has plenty of speed.
In contrast, Valterri Bottas could be looking for a drive if he loses out to Ocon at Mercedes, and again, as a multiple winner, he could be a greater asset to Renault than Hulkenberg.
Renault also have reserve drivers Sergey Sirotkin and Jack Aitken to consider.
Sirotkin had a difficult season at Williams last year, but that was more to do with the car than his driving. He was well respected within the Grove squad and he put in some respectable drives, often faster than his teammate, Lance Stroll, in qualifying.
Aitken is currently racing for Campos in Formula 2 and sits fifth in the driver’s standings. He has won two races this year but while the Briton has plenty of potential, it is unlikely Renault would make a move for him at a time where they need consistency and an immediate impact.
Hulkenberg has been a great servant for Renault, scoring 124 of the 207 points they have scored since their return to Formula 1 but in his 10 years in the series, he has failed to prove he can race at the next level.
His experience in F1 will always put him in a good position during contract talks, but now could be the time for Renault to try something new as they hit a critical period in their attempt to break away from the midfield.
Hulkenberg’s options are limited
If the German were to leave, his options to remain in F1 could be limited. There is potentially a seat at Haas as well as at Racing Point and Williams but it is questionable if any of these seats would be desirable for him.
There is still half a year for Hulkenberg to prove to the F1 world why he deserves to remain in the series and it is still completely possible for him to keep his seat at Renault.
If he can retain his seat for another season, he will be hoping Renault can finally give him a car that will allow him to get the results he deserves after 10 strong years in the series, but if he does fall out of favour, it will be a shame to see such a talent miss out on podiums and wins when they should have been achieved.