F1 » Nico Hulkenberg
Like many of his countryman breaking into Formula One, Nico Hulkenberg has been saddled with the pressure of being the natural successor to Michael Schumacher but, like Sebastian Vettel before him, this is one youngster capable of moulding his own niche in the top flight.
As with Schumacher and Vettel before him, Hulkenberg took his first steps on the motorsport ladder in karting, starting at the age of ten. Within five years, he had claimed his first major title, taking the 2002 German Junior Championship, and immediately doubled up with the senior title the following season.
Stepping out of karts for 2005, Hulkenberg embarked on a rapid rise through the ranks, beginning with a year in the national Formula BMW series with Josef Kaufmann Racing that, unsurprisingly, yielded another title after nine wins from 20 races. World success also appeared to be Hulkenberg's, only for the young German to be disqualified from the final in Valencia.
With that success behind him, the only way was up and, with Schumacher's manager, Willi Weber, guiding his career after spotting his raw talent in karting, Hulkenberg joined the national ADAC German F3 series for 2006. A win and three poles eventually led to fifth place overall, but Hulkenberg also had bigger things on his plate, having been drafted into Weber's A1 Team Germany stable for the A1GP Series. It was there, in the winter of 2006-07, that the youngster - still a teenager - really sprang to prominence as nine race wins not only made him statistically the most succssful driver in the series' short history, but also handed Germany the crown.
With A1GP not recognised as a stepping stone to F1, it was back to F3 for Hulkenberg in 2007, this time in the highly-competitive Euroseries. Racing with the crack ASM outfit gave him an immediate advantage over many of his rivals, and Hulkenberg responded well, taking wins at circuits as diverse as the Norisring, Zandvoort and the Nurburgring, but he still far from the finished article and a troubled end to the season allowed team-mate Romain Grosjean to escape to the title. The German did get the better of his French rival in the Masters of F3 event at Zolder, however, adding more silverware to his collection.
His mercurial season also persuaded Weber to begin touting him to F1 teams, with Williams eventually taking a punt on the youngster after Renault passed up on the chance to run him. Such was Hulkenberg's pace in testing, where he outshone Kazuki Nakajima and almost rivalled Nico Rosberg, the team immediately signed him to a testing deal.
He returned to the Euroseries in 2008, and remained with the same team, albeit now renamed ART Grand Prix to reflect its ties to a sister team in GP2. This time the story was all about Hulkenberg as he battled countryman - and A1GP successor - Christian Vietoris for the crown. Their wins tally reflected Hulkenberg's superiority, as he dominated the Saturday feature race and built an unassailable lead that eventually brought him the title - and safe passage along ART's path towards F1.
Although his talent was becoming more widely recognised, few expected Hulkenberg to blitz GP2 at his first attempt, even though ART predecessor Lewis Hamilton had done so four years earlier. However, the French team's return to form, coupled with his own prodigious talent, ensured that he hit the ground running.
Hulkenberg was introduced to the higher category midway through the winter's Asia Series, and annexed pole first time out in Bahrain. Although he failed to win either race that weekend, success wasn't long in coming as he took both pole and victory under the lights in Qatar, ending up sixth overall after contesting only half the campaign..
That set him up well for the summer series and, continuing with ART, he made a steady start before launching his title challenge in style with a double win on home soil at the Nurburgring, complete with pole position and two fastest laps. Two further wins saw him end the season with exactly 100 points, and with the title safely in his pocket before the final round. That took the pressure off and Hülkenberg duly claimed a fifth victory in the Portimao finale, confirming his superiority over series veterans such as Vitaly Petrov and Lucas di Grassi.
With Williams swapping Toyota engines for Cosworths ahead of the 2010 F1 campaign, there was always likely to be a vacancy where once Nakajima was placed. With Nico Rosberg also deciding to move on, however, Hulkenberg was a shoo-in for the Grove team, which decided to partner him with 2009 race winner - and most storied F1 driver ever - Rubens Barrichello.
The 2010 set-up provided Hulkenberg with a good learning environment, but the German insisted that he would not shy away from taking the lead should the situation present itself. Weber had already suggested that his charge is a potential Ferrari driver - even within three years - but Hulkenberg was content to serve his apprenticeship at Williams, as the once great team attempts to restore itself to the front of the field.
While the FW32 allowed Barrichello to start steadily and rack up regular points finishes, Hulkenberg managed a solitary tenth place - worth one point - in the first half of the season. Things picked up thereafter, with six further scoring appearances not always reflecting the German's improved form, which peaked with a surprise pole for the Brazilian GP at Interlagos.
That, however, was not enough to cement Hulkenberg's place in the line-up and, with Williams aware that it was losing sponsors at the end of the year, it plumped for Barrichello's development experience to complement newcomer Pastor Maldonado's PDVSA backing.
Without a viable race opportunity - he was apparently offered a season in the Williams-supplied HRT - Hulkenberg was destined for another year in a reserve role, with Force India snapping up his services for 2011. The youngster made the most of the opportunity to remain involved in the top flight, showing enough potential in Friday practice sessions to figure in the team's driver debate for 2012, along with Adrian Sutil and Paul di Resta. Although neither of the race drivers had fared badly, it was rumoured that one would have to make way as Hulkenberg had been promised a Sunday seat for 2012 and, after much prevarication, it was Sutil who lost out.
Despite its new line-up seemingly having been around for a while, Force India entered 2012 with just 38 races worth of experience, and Hulkenberg knowing he needed to make the most of what turned out to be a one-year deal.
To his credit, the German seized the opportunity with both hands and, although he trailed di Resta early in the season, came on strong in the second half, capped by fourth place in the Belgian Grand Prix. Five points finishes in the final six races – interrupted only by a DNF in Abu Dhabi – helped lift Hulkenberg to the fringe of the top ten overall and nearly 20 points clear of his team-mate.
Moreover, his late form also propelled the former GP2 Series champion into the speculation over drives at both Ferrari and McLaren but, when he did decide to move on for 2013, it was to become the new number one at Sauber, where he will partner rookie Esteban Gutierrez.