Hulkenberg says F1 "train has probably left", ready for IndyCar

Nico Hulkenberg was hugely unfortunate in terms of his F1 career, which never lived up to his extreme promise in junior formulas. Ahead of his first IndyCar test, he looks to the future and assesses his past. Adam Cooper reports.

Will Nico Hulkenberg follow the path taken by Romain Grosjean and become the next Formula 1 driver to make the move to IndyCar racing?

On Monday the German will make the first step when he takes part in the rookie and driver evaluation test at Barber Motorsports Park for the Arrow McLaren SP-Chevrolet team.

At the moment the day is purely being billed as a chance for Hulkenberg to sample an IndyCar single-seater, and in essence to see if he would like to one day pursue a race program.

However, there is a clear opportunity on the horizon, as the team is evaluating the possibility of running a third car part-time in 2022, alongside regulars Pato O'Ward and Felix Rosenqvist, ahead of an expansion to three full-time entries in 2023.

If the test is successful and it makes sense commercially and logistically to pursue a third entry it could be a great opportunity for both parties.

Hulkenberg would be stepping straight into a team that proved it was capable of running at the front of the NTT IndyCar Series pack this year, as O'Ward won two races, led several others, and eventually finished third in the championship.

The team in turn would be getting a driver who won everything on the way to F1. Then, over a stop-start 10-year career at the top level with Williams, Force India, Sauber and Renault he led, took a pole and set two fastest laps, but never found his way into a truly competitive car. He also found time to demonstrate his versatility by winning Le Mans with Porsche at his first attempt in 2015.

Hulkenberg's biggest win so far is the 2015 24 Hours of Le Mans for Porsche along with Nick Tandy and Earl Bamber.

Hulkenberg's biggest win so far is the 2015 24 Hours of Le Mans for Porsche along with Nick Tandy and Earl Bamber.

Photo by: Eric Gilbert

McLaren knows exactly how good Hulkenberg can be, so next week's test isn't really about evaluating the driver. Company CEO Zak Brown has had plenty of time to observe the 34-year-old German over the years, while F1 team boss Andreas Seidl ran Porsche's WEC program so knows just how good he is.

Last season, Hulkenberg served as the reserve driver for what was then called Racing Point (now Aston Martin), and he reminded everyone of his ability when he jumped in at Silverstone in place of Sergio Perez.

Having failed to start the British GP after a late problem in the garage, he qualified a hugely impressive third at the following weekend's 70th Anniversary GP at the same venue. He finished a solid seventh, and when he was called upon again to replace Lance Stroll at the German Grand Prix, he scored more points with eighth.

He retained the reserve role at Aston Martin this year, but his services haven't been called upon. With no racing program, he has been able to devote his time to family life, his wife Egle having recently given birth to their first child. But he's definitely not ready to be a full-time stay-at-home dad just yet, and with no F1 opportunities on the horizon, IndyCar could be where his future lies.

"Of course I'm excited to go and drive again," he says. "I haven't been behind the wheel for I think it's pretty much a year now – since Nurburgring last year. That crazy last minute step-in!

"I'm excited, and I still feel I have a couple of good laps in my right foot. So it's finding out about the [Indy] car. I've watched the last couple of races, and my heart is in single-seater racing. Obviously F1 is not going to happen, so you look for the next best alternative, and IndyCar is definitely interesting."

This year Romain Grosjean made a huge impression in his rookie season, with three podium finishes and a pole position, and it was obvious to all how much he enjoyed racing at the front after his years of fighting for scraps at Haas.

However, Hulkenberg insists that the Frenchman hasn't been a particular inspiration, despite the obvious parallels in terms of age – Grosjean is just 16 months older – and career path.

"No, not really. It's not Romain, it's just my desire still to race a single-seater car at the most competitive level possible that is available to me. And those cars are pretty cool, the racing is good. It looks very enjoyable and fun."

Arrow McLaren SP has a handle on the Barber Motorsports Park, as evidenced by Pato O'Ward taking pole there in April.

Arrow McLaren SP has a handle on the Barber Motorsports Park, as evidenced by Pato O'Ward taking pole there in April.

Photo by: Art Fleischmann

The test is officially exactly that, but the prospect of a third McLaren entry from some point beyond the Indy 500 adds a little intrigue to the day. Will Hulkenberg be ready to make the move in 2022?

"I think so, under the right circumstances, yes," he replies. "This is not my decision. That's the team's decision – how many cars they put they put in the championship. But we need to walk before we run. I'm going to do the test, and after that I'll obviously know more about it, and then we'll sit down together and talk."

He's also prepared to move his young family to the USA.

"That's very doable, especially with a baby," he observes, "because you don't have to really take kids from school and stuff. It's actually the time to do it."

Hulkenberg's interest in IndyCar reflects his acceptance that there's no real chance of getting back on the grid. For a while he's been one of the men most likely to be called upon in an emergency, and not just by Aston Martin.

However, as time passes and the distance to his last full season in 2019 grows, so his status near the top of the reserve list inevitably fades.

"Yeah, definitely. I've got to be realistic there, that this train probably has left, especially, given today's current situation. It is what it is. Obviously as a driver you're part of the process of the decision, but the teams ultimately take the decisions, and some teams have some questionable taste or decision-making!

"And yeah, it's a bit of an interesting situation in F1 in general at the moment. I feel like the top 10 drivers, maybe 12, they're really high quality, and real top-notch drivers. And then the bottom half, the quality is not as high as it used to be. And there is a lot of other factors in there. So obviously, from my point of view it's a little sad and disappointing to see that, but that's just the way it is."

If the 2020 Eifel GP does turn out to be his last F1 race, then Hulkenberg arguably leaves the series as one of the great underachievers, especially given that he arrived on the back of success in F3, A1 GP and GP2.

He never quite made the jump to a race-winning car, and indeed despite finishing as high as seventh with Renault in the 2018 world championship, he never logged a podium finish.

Does he have any regrets about decisions he took along the way?

"I mean, there's always things you can do better," he says, "but the hindsight business… It's not my personality to dwell on that so long and so much. 

"Of course, there were things I could have done differently – actually, more early in my career – and steered things towards different situations. And, of course, I learned from those, but… it's done.

"So I don't have too many regrets, to be honest. I had a really good time."

Hulkenberg's F1 highlight was driving his Williams to pole ahead of the Red Bull Racing duo at Interlagos in 2010.

Hulkenberg's F1 highlight was driving his Williams to pole ahead of the Red Bull Racing duo at Interlagos in 2010.

Photo by: Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Images

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