From coffee in Cologne to an eighth-place finish in a never expected home Formula 1 grand prix, Nico Hulkenberg’s super-sub appearance - dubbed ‘Hulkenback 2.0’ - at the Eifel Grand Prix was a true rollercoaster ride.

Hulkenberg was having coffee with a friend just four hours before the start of qualifying. At 11am his phone rings. It is Racing Point team principal Otmar Szafnauer calling to inform him that Lance Stroll had fallen unwell and his services were required.

No faster had he put the phone down, Hulkenberg was getting into his Porcshe and making a one-hour dash across the Autobahn to the Nurburgring, where he was due to be later in the day as a television pundit.

After taking a rapid COVID test, and returning that all-important negative result, the German was in the paddock and exchanging his civies for a race suit.

Hulkenberg was back in the RP20 for his third appearance of the season following back-to-back outings at Silverstone earlier in the year as stand-in for Sergio Perez, who had been ruled out with a positive coronavirus test.

With no practice running to get his bearings, Hulkenberg was thrown in at the deep end in qualifying. He completed four flying laps, posting a best time that was two-tenths slower than Kimi Raikkonen and within 0.4s of making it into Q2.

It was the first time Hulkenberg had qualified last in his career, and he couldn’t have been happier.

“It was even wilder and crazier than last time,” Hulkenberg said when reflecting on his dramatic Saturday. “I was in Cologne which is an hour from here.

“I was due to come here this afternoon anyway, I was going to do some TV stuff from RTL tomorrow. I was sitting with a friend having a coffee at 11am when I saw that Otmar rings me and says ‘Hulkenberg, hurry we need you here’.

“I stepped in the car, came here and the rest is history. We saw what happened here. You saw what happened now, obviously. A 2.0 return in the moment of a heartbeat.”

On Sunday, the 33-year-old quickly made progress and gained three positions on the opening lap. A long first stint helped Hulkenberg make up further ground as he battled his way through the field, ultimately finishing in eighth place, less than two seconds behind Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc.

Hulkenberg’s performance earned him the Driver of the Day vote from F1 fans and reminded everyone of his unquestionable talent.

Remarkably, Hulkenberg now has as many top-eight finishes as Sebastian Vettel – who will join the Silverstone outfit next year to become teammates with Stroll – despite competing in nine fewer races. He is also 15th in the drivers’ championship.

“Very happy with everything, to be honest,” Hulkenberg said after the race. “The start wasn’t great, as expected kind of, but then Lap 1, I managed to find two spots I think [it was actually three].

“And then I kind of just really focused on myself, just really trying to find the good rhythm for myself in the car, being on the limit, which kind of happened halfway through the first stint.

“Then I managed to make the tyre last, and I think a long first stint was key then to a successful result. Obviously totally unexpected but totally appreciated and really happy for that.”

Steering Racing Point’s progress - on and off track

Despite his fleeting appearances in 2020, Hulkenberg has played a vital role in helping Racing Point progress this season.

Not only has his raw speed, consistency and 10-point haul aided the team’s rise to third place in the constructors’ championship, but Hulkenberg has also had a fundamental impact in helping to guide Racing Point’s development this year.

Racing Point technical director Andrew Green revealed that Hulkenberg’s feedback at the Silverstone rounds prompted the suspension upgrades the team recently introduced.

Green said the “rear suspension and front suspension changes that we made were as a direct result of him driving the car in Silverstone.”

“It’s interesting, his feedback,” Green explained. “Some of the developments that we put on the car were as a direct result of his feedback in Silverstone.

“His feedback after the race was very intriguing. He mentioned things that he liked changed in the car, how we go about setting the car up and the feel from the car, and we made those changes after Silverstone, not expecting him to ever get back in the car again and drive it.

“But lo and behold it does happen, and we get the feedback about the developments that we made on the car. So that was really interesting and really important.”

Due to this lack of mileage in qualifying, Hulkenberg was not able to provide a proper assessment of the update until after the race.

The fact he had no time to adjust to the changes - which included a sizeable aerodynamic upgrade - since he last drove the car at Silverstone made Hulkenberg’s efforts on Saturday all the more impressive.

“The sort of changes we’re talking about, you can’t adjust to them in four laps, which is what he had to do on Saturday afternoon,” Green continued.

“He had four flying laps and for him to adjust to the changes we’ve made since Silverstone was going to be nigh on impossible.

“So, he needed time with the car, which is what he didn’t have. But by the end of the race, he had plenty of time in the car and his feedback was invaluable, which was very good.”

Will a full-time comeback happen in 2021?

Hulkenberg’s recovery in a very late substitute outing was a perfect and timely audition for teams currently assessing their driver options for next year.

Hulkenberg revealed back in August that he had already held talks with some teams about a possible full-time return in 2021, which remains his number one target.

While there have been no firm developments on his future, Hulkenberg’s starring drive at the Nurburgring, coupled with his impressive displays at Silverstone, would have caught the eye and surely helped enhance his chances.   

Discussing Hulkenberg’s performance in his latest post-race column, F1 boss Ross Brawn – who recently revealed he would have signed the German to drive for Mercedes had the team’s top target Lewis Hamilton not joined in 2013 - wrote: “Nico keeps endorsing my admiration for him.

“As I’ve said before, he came close to driving for us at Mercedes - he would have been a great candidate for that.

“I think highly of him as a driver and this performance, with so little running before qualifying and the racing, gives me more reason to think so. To step in like that in such a competitive field as F1 is pretty special.

“He’s certainly a driver that deserves a place in F1, but there are only 20 seats on the grid. Everyone can see he’s probably not outside the top 20 fastest drivers right now.”

Hulkenberg’s most realistic hopes of landing a drive appear to come at either Haas or Alfa Romeo.

Both teams technically have two seats up for grabs, but mounting speculation points towards Alfa Romeo opting for a line-up consisting of its first choice Kimi Raikkonen and Ferrari junior Mick Schumacher, who leads the Formula 2 championship with four races remaining.

Ferrari has a say over one of the seats at Alfa Romeo, currently occupied by Antonio Giovinazzi, and that might just close the door on any potential opening for Hulkenberg, despite the Swiss squad’s team boss Frederic Vasseur being a well-known admirer of his.

Perhaps it is therefore with American outfit Haas that Hulkenberg’s best chances lie. Interestingly, Hulkenberg was seen having a pre-race chat with Haas team principal Guenther Steiner on the grid in Germany.

Haas has drawn up a list of as many as 10 drivers that are under consideration for next year as the team weighs up its options for 2021, with Steiner making it clear that all options are on the table for his side.

A left-field option for Red Bull?

Red Bull’s Christian Horner has continually backed Alex Albon amid a difficult season and insisted that his position alongside Max Verstappen at the team is safe.

Albon had a particularly tough race in Germany that included an unscheduled early stop after he flatspotted his tyres on the first lap, and a clumsy collision with AlphaTauri’s Daniil Kvyat that saw him pick up a penalty.

At the Russian Grand Prix, while stressing it is Red Bull’s intention to keep Albon, Horner indicated the team is “aware” of out-of-contract alternatives like Hulkenberg and Perez.

Speculation regarding Albon has refused to go away, and there were some intriguing comments made by Red Bull advisor Helmut Marko after the Eifel Grand Prix.

Speaking to German channel Sport1, Marko revealed that Red Bull had contacted Hulkenberg as a precaution on Friday about the possibility of driving for the team after Albon returned an inconclusive COVID test, as well as discussing the team’s options for 2021.

"We can call the names that are available on the market,” Marko said. "This is Hulkenberg and this is Perez. The question is how far away they would be from Max?

"We have comparisons with [Daniel] Ricciardo and we can draw conclusions about where the drivers stand. I don't think that anyone would get closer than three tenths.

"On good days, Albon is also able to create this proximity to Max. Albon is young, but we are aware that if he can't stand the pressure, we can't afford to be standing on one leg when it comes to the world championship. That is the situation.

"It is actually impossible for a world championship if you only have one car in the action. But we are not there yet. The performance [of Albon] at the Nurburgring was satisfactory. That's just the situation.”

Marko confirmed Red Bull would be forced to look outside of its programme if it decided to make any changes to its driver line-up for 2021.

"Up to now we have always recruited our drivers from our own junior squad. But there's nobody here at the moment," he added.

"We do have a Japanese who is very fast, but this would be his first year. And to put him in a top team like Red Bull Racing for the first year would risk burning him out.

“We are not planning to do that, so we would have to go the way most other teams do, to rely on proven drivers.

“We are actually already clear about three positions. We want to make a decision about the fourth at the latest in Istanbul.”

Hulkenberg himself was relaxed when asked about his prospects for 2021, replying: “[There’s] no rush. I’m looking around, you know? Good things take time.”

With his brief performances this year, Hulkenberg has shown more than enough to suggest he is deserving of a place on the grid in 2021. He would be an astute hire for any of the teams in the market for a new driver.

 

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