Why we watched him in 2017
Nico Hulkenberg changed teams after 2016, moving to Renault from Force India where he had spent his last three seasons. This alone was a reason to follow how the German would fare against his old employer, considering his career has most likely passed its mid-point. Hulkenberg got Jolyon Palmer as his teammate, the Briton surprisingly being re-signed by Renault for another year after a difficult 2017 campaign.
Hulkenberg was the dominant one from the start of the season, taking the number one driver’s role very quickly, if it was even a question before Australia. This added to the fans’ interest in Hulkenberg, some sadistically only following him to see how badly he’d beat Palmer.
One off-track highlight happened to Hulkenberg during the 2017 season. In Hungary, he was having an average race, battling for the final places in the top ten when he caught up with Haas’s Kevin Magnussen. The two had a fierce battle during which Magnussen pushed Hulkenberg off the track, and the German eventually retired from the race due to a separate technical issue.
He confronted Magnussen about the clash in the media pen, saying the Dane was “the most unsporting driver of the whole grid”. Magnussen halted his interview to deliver a vulgar response to Hulkenberg, proposing that the German “suck his balls”. This atypical confrontation kept the fans entertained through the whole summer break, making it more enticing to follow the two drivers in the second part of the season.
Drivers’ championship performance
Hulkenberg took a risk leaving Force India for Renault, as Force India finished fourth in constructors’ standings when Renault were only ninth in 2016. Obviously, Hulkenberg trusts Renault will soon return to their glory days, but it looked as though he would fall far from his ninth place in the drivers’ standings from 2016.
Well, this wasn’t exactly the case. Hulkenberg finished tenth in the standings with 43 points, behind his end-of-season teammate Carlos Sainz. In the standings, the switch of teams seems to not have damaged Hulkenberg too much, but there is a fault in the numbers. Although he finished only one position lower than the previous year, he scored 29 points less in 2017. That means a drop of 40 percent, with, of course, one race less. Hulkenberg’s race performance was also a lot less stable in 2017, retiring six times.
Overall, Hulkenberg had a good season considering the worst-case scenario, but he had no challenge from his teammate for over half of the season and after Carlos Sainz joined Renault, things got a bit more difficult for the Hulk. He did manage to beat his new teammate in the final races they drove for Renault, so props for that.
Hulkenberg had a total of four sixth place finishes in 2017 and any of them could be his best weekend of the season. However, having to choose one, I’d argue it was the Spanish GP. Nico qualified modestly 13th but was able to rise through the field to sixth, bringing Renault their highest finish since returning to Formula 1. In addition, considering his teammate Palmer retired from the race, Hulkenberg really brought all those important constructors’ points to the team as a sole soldier.
I must mention as a close second the season finale in Abu Dhabi. Hulkenberg truly saved his team by finishing sixth and scoring enough points for Renault to overtake Toro Rosso for sixth in the constructors’ championship. It was a performance worth millions and with Sainz retiring as a consequence of the mechanic not attaching his front tyre during his pit stop, things could have ended a lot worse for Renault if it wasn’t for Hulkenberg’s nerves.
Hulkenberg had one major mishap during the entire 2017 season. It happened in Baku, Azerbaijan amidst all that chaos that race produced. Hulkenberg was sitting nicely in sixth, which could have easily led onto the podium the way the race went in the end. However, Hulkenberg managed to crash his car in a tight corner at a fairly low speed, ending his promising race. The Azerbaijan GP was his worst weekend purely on the potential he threw away with a human error.
Renault made big leaps forward in the development of their car in 2017, and the same should continue during the winter and on to 2018 with more money thrown behind the team. Hulkenberg should have a decent midfield car in Australia next season, so his worries about the team and the car should be pretty much over.
However, he is starting the season with Carlos Sainz, Red Bull’s future champion as some believe, as his teammate. Hulkenberg is already in the latter half of his career, so if he doesn’t beat Sainz next season his career might end sooner rather than later. But at least he should be back in the top eight, from where he left off when leaving Force India. Next season will show everyone if that move was really worth it.