Nico H?lkenberg is a man with a plan, and one who knows exactly where he wants to go and when. He may be missing the final two rounds of the 2008/09 GP2 Asia Series to make way for ART Grand Prix team-mate Pastor Maldonado, but that has not knocked his confidence. Not one bit.

The young German stunned the GP2 community by setting pole position on his debut in Bahrain last month, and though he could manage no better than fourth position in either of the two races that weekend, he had nevertheless well-and-truly arrived. Having graduated from the F3 Euroseries as champion with ASM Formule 3, H?lkenberg was clearly keen to pick up exactly where he had left off.

In further evidence of that, the 21-year-old went on to take pole position again on his second outing at Losail in Qatar - to the tune of a gaping seven tenths of a second this time - and followed it up with a dominant victory in race one, only his third start in the championship, together with a further rostrum finish from eighth on the grid in race two.

Though a title challenge has been torpedoed by his having to relinquish the car to allow Maldonado some seat time before the main season gets underway in April [see separate story - click here], it has been an encouraging start, to say the very least - and one not un-reminiscent of that of Renault Formula 1 test driver Romain Grosjean in last year's Asia Series.

"I think he will also do the main series this year, so I hope we can challenge him and have some good fights and good races," the man dubbed the 'Incredible Hulk' said of Grosjean, who as team-mates he pipped to F3 Ultimate Masters glory at Zolder in 2007. "There are many other drivers in GP2 who are in their second or third year, though. That makes it even more difficult for a rookie, but we are trying hard and pushing and trying to get good results from the beginning.

"Qualifying was very surprising in Bahrain, even for me; I didn't expect to be that quick in my first qualifying session, but I just arrived in the car and felt comfortable in it and with the team. We have a good package, and we showed that in Bahrain and again in Qatar. Being competitive is great news for us."

Indeed, H?lkenberg has been competitive in virtually every category of racing he has turned his hand to, from karting through German Formula BMW, up to A1GP, F3 and GP2, but that is not to say he has had things easy - far from it. Having triumphed in the Formula BMW World Finals in 2005 - at the end of his debut season in the series - he was subsequently stripped of the trophy for having brake-tested one of his rivals during a safety car period.

"That was a strange situation for everybody," he recollected, speaking to our journalists, "but I took the penalty and for sure I learned from it for my future racing and moved on.

"We were lucky when we started Formula BMW with Josef Kaufmann; that was a very successful team and we had a very successful year. I felt very comfortable in the team and I had good team-mates; we were pushing each other a lot. I think that was one of the keys to the success we had.

"We then stayed with Josef for 2006 in German Formula 3. That was quite a tough year, both budget-wise and also with the team - we were not so successful, and if you struggle in races the problems are coming. I would say that was the most difficult year in my career so far; for the rest of it I have always been with good and competitive teams. I think we have made a lot of good decisions, and hopefully we can keep that up."

As the most successful driver in A1GP World Cup of Motorsport history, H?lkenberg led Germany to the season two laurels in the nation vs nation series, triumphing on nine occasions over the course of his maiden campaign and practically single-handedly driving the squad - run by his manager and Michael Schumacher's former manager Willi Weber - to the crown.

"I'm not looking to get high scores or win the most races or make history," he urged. "It was important that we had good races and won the championship. A1GP taught me a lot. We were travelling around the world and driving very long races with pit-stops; that was the most important thing, not being the most successful guy ever there.

"Coming back to F3 from A1GP was quite difficult. The cars were quite different - one was very light, dynamic and quick, and the other was big and heavy with a lot of horsepower. They required quite a different way of driving, and it took me half a season to change my driving style to suit the car. That wasn't ideal, but after that we were quite competitive and we scored the most points in the second half of the season."

Pointing to his tremendous victory at the Norisring in late June from all the way down in 18th position on the grid as the turning-point in 2007, the following year H?lkenberg would prove unstoppable, as he followed in the wheeltracks of current F1 World Champion Lewis Hamilton, DTM title contender Paul di Resta and fellow GP2 ace Grosjean in storming to the F3 Euroseries title.

Weber has suggested that the current Williams test driver is much like Schumacher in his younger days and is ready to race in F1 right now, but H?lkenberg himself shrugs off any such comparisons, and insists they do not put him under any greater pressure to perform.

With plenty of experience of slick tyres and little of the newly-outlawed traction control, there certainly couldn't be a better time for the man from Emmerich am Rhein to make his bow in the top flight, but for now, he maintains, his sole focus is on GP2. For now.

"It maybe looks like more pressure from the outside, but actually for me personally, Willi is not putting any extra pressure on me," he underlined. "He is only supporting me and helping me out in difficult situations, and he advises me with all his experience. I don't feel any extra pressure; I'm not interested in that - if there's pressure I need to release it, and just do my job out on the circuit.

"[Swapping between F1 and GP2] actually isn't too bad. I was worried about that, but getting to Qatar and jumping in the car and just driving it was okay. I think maybe it helps in some ways, in fact, because F1 is just quicker everywhere, and then if you go back to a slower car maybe it helps to learn things quicker.

"I'm just trying to have a good GP2 season. In motorsport you always need to be successful to move on and make yourself interesting to other people. When I started motor racing it was clear for me that I wanted to go up to Formula 1 one day, so maybe if I have a good season there will be an opportunity next year to race with Williams."

Though he admits to also being a keen tennis player, there is little doubt where Nico H?lkenberg's true passion lies, and he confesses to having 'no idea' what he would be doing if he wasn't racing, explaining that he has 'never thought about it'. With his evident potential and over a quarter of the current F1 field having graduated from F1 to GP2, he is unlikely to have to.

Interview by Alix Capper-Murdoch




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