Nico Hulkenberg Is Back, Unexpectedly

The Haas F1 shift to two veteran drivers makes sense, but the choice to hire the 35-year-old Hulkenberg is an odd one.

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Nico Hulkenberg never really left. Despite disappearing the full-time Formula 1 grid for the past three seasons, Hulkenberg has been a vocal and active member of the paddock since the day he joined Williams in 2010. That time in F1 has not been particularly successful, however; outside of a sensational pole on a drying Interlagos as a rookie, Hulkenberg has zero poles, podiums, and wins in his entire 13-year Formula 1 career. Nevertheless, at 35 years old, he is back in the series.

This is the sixth installment of our driver-by-driver preview of the 2023 Formula 1 season. This weekend, we will be covering Haas F1. You can find the rest of our previews here .

Hulkenberg spent the past three seasons as a reserve driver for what used to be his Force India team, making four spot starts for Racing Point and Aston Martin in those seasons. That kept him on the minds of team leaders throughout the back half of the Formula 1 field, which led to a shocking hire at Haas F1 late this year. Mick Schumacher's shot at an F1 career is over for now, but Hulkenberg's continues.

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HOW HE GOT HERE

Hulkenberg's time in cars starts all the way back in 2005, back when he debuted in Germany's Formula BMW. He won the GP2 (now Formula 2) championship on his 2009 debut, earning him a one-season shot at Williams. Despite his pole at Interlagos, he was dropped after the year and was consigned to a reserve role at Force India in 2011. That led to a one-season stint there before a shift to Sauber for another season, then three more at Force India. Renault poached him for three unsuccessful seasons from 2017 to 2019, then he returned to what was by that point Racing Point for his third stint with the team now known as Aston Martin F1.

Throughout all of that, he accomplished very little of note. He consistently scored points, enough to regularly float around tenth in the championship on middling teams, but he never secured any of the surprising podiums that made Sergio Perez such a noteworthy figure at the same Force India team. His best championship finish, seventh, came in his 2018 season at Renault.

His career highlight actually came away from Formula 1, during his surprise appearance at the 2015 24 Hours of Le Mans. As an active F1 driver, he joined Porsche's 919 program for a two-race schedule in their third car at Spa and Le Mans. Speed and good attrition fortune led Hulkenberg to an overall win at Le Mans alongside Nick Tandy and Earl Bamber, a rare feat for an active F1 driver later matched by Fernando Alonso in 2018.

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HOW 2022 WENT

Nico Hulkenberg spent 2022 as he had spent 2020 and 2021, in a reserve role for the team owned by Lawrence Stroll. He made two appearances in relief of Sebastian Vettel to open the season, finishing 17th and 12th for Aston Martin in those events. It was uneventful at best, but it was apparently enough to draw interest from Haas F1 leadership.

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GOALS FOR 2023

Although he is a veteran driver in his own right, Hulkenberg has far less time in the new-for-2022 rule set than his teammate Kevin Magnussen. Both are relatively old drivers who are unlikely to bolt for a bigger and better team any time soon, so they are their own barometers for the other's success. Strangely, the two have the same exact best-ever moment in F1: surprise poles in wet qualifying at Interlagos in relatively bad cars, more than a decade apart.

Given that Haas is expected to fight among the back half of the mid-pack again next season, any goals for Hulkenberg will be set against either Magnussen or other teams with similar expectations like Alfa Romeo and Williams. He should be looking for points whenever possible and should not either hold his teammate from scoring points or be held back by his teammate.

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A SUCCESSFUL SEASON LOOKS LIKE...

If Hulkenberg can come anywhere near what Magnussen accomplished last season, or what he consistently accomplished at more successful Force India and Renault teams, his 2023 will be a success. That is a big ask for anyone, given how consistently Magnussen out-performed expectations in the opening races of last season.

The more realistic goal will be to do enough to justify his spot with the team and keep his job for the next season. Magnussen not only did that, his performance convinced the team to look at another veteran and led the program to sign Hulkenberg in the first place. It is an achievable goal, and if Hulkenberg can continue to race in Formula 1 at 36 without a career podium, his long career will continue to be a relative success.

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