The Renault ace plays his other favourite sport
Renault’s Nico Hülkenberg is no one-hit wonder when it comes to sport. Away from Formula 1, tennis is his favourite game. New balls, please!
This is almost the perfect day for a knockabout, marred only by the wind swirling around the five clay courts of the Mairie tennis club, just off Cap Marquet beach and a short stroll from the busy port of Cap d’ail and the moneyed milieu of Monaco beyond. Every footstep kicks up a brief puff of dust, not least those sent skyward by the purposeful stride of Nico Hülkenberg as he lets himself in through the gate and moves towards the net, twirling his racquet throughout.
On court, Nico seems at ease and very much in his natural environment, dressed modishly tennis-casual, shorts obeying the ‘Goldilocks principle’ (neither too long nor too short), socks less so (we’ll forgive him that; it’s very ‘now’ in the sports world) and baseball cap pointing resolutely forwards. He’s actually a member of the Monte Carlo Country Club – the one up on the hill, home of the annual Rolex Masters tournament, of which the current champion is one Rafael Nadal – but he assures us he’s not that good, and insists the Country Club isn’t that exclusive. “Well, maybe a little bit,” he concedes, “but I don’t really think so.”
Not that F1 Racing will be thwacking any balls around the court today – we’re leaving that to CNN’S Amanda Davies, who has arrived in a pro-looking garb redolent of national treasure Sue Barker in her prime.“can you really play for fun?” she calls to Nico across the court. “That’s what we’re doing,” he says with a grin, prowling the baseline, jiggling on his feet and spinning his racquet once more.
“Does he keep score, honestly?” we whisper to Martin Poole, Nico’s performance coach, who stifles a laugh.
Given Nico’s chosen domicile of Monaco, his choice of sporting pastime is unusual compared with that of his peers. Most of them prefer to cycle – the group ringleaders are Alex Wurz and Jenson Button, and regular readers might recall that three years ago we infiltrated this secretive group, which includes professional cyclists as well as racing drivers from all disciplines.
“I’m not into cycling at all,” says Nico. “I’ve tried and the Monaco cycling community tried to get me in. I went a few times and I’ll go out with them again – but it’s not my ‘thing’ somehow.”
Nico’s height and build would certainly put him at the Marcel Kittel end of the two-wheeled spectrum, a sprinter not a distance machine, but maybe it’s other elements of the culture that put him off. The fixation of the keenest cyclists with form and style, perhaps, as detailed in the infamous Velominati package of ‘Rules’, wherein the colour and length of elements such as shorts and socks are tightly prescribed. A swift look at the other users of the courts this morning reveals considerable deviation from standard tennis attire; no snobbery here, it seems.
“Not at all,” agrees Nico. “I don’t care about that sort of thing. I don’t take it that seriously.
“I’ve been playing for a good ten years, but really as a hobby, for pleasure. I get fun out of it: it’s just you, your form, your racquet. There aren’t any other elements involved in it, which makes it good fun as well as good exercise.”
An antidote to the minutiae-dependent, marginal-gains universe of Formula 1, then? That might be it. And, for sure, the new generation of heavier, wide-track car is tougher than ever before to finesse into the set-up ‘sweet spot’, and faster to drop out of it when conditions change even slightly. Drivers up and down the grid have spent the months since the season-opening Australian GP expressing frustration at how they can lose – or even gain – performance between sessions, even without altering any settings.
“Yeah, we’ve found that sometimes with our car,” says Nico. “It can be easy to change some things and you don’t really understand why, or you can have the wind change between sessions and all of a sudden you lose a lot of performance. Maybe the more compact or better cars at the front are better protected against these scenarios, but it’s a matter of developing the car; you have to understand how it works in different conditions and build on what you’ve got.
“It is different for me, being part of a manufacturer team now, although at the end of the day you’ve still got the same job to do. But you see and feel everywhere that you’re working for a much bigger operation. You feel the weight, in terms of resources, of a major car manufacturer behind it – and also the sense of expectation too. But I think we’re on a good road, and recently we’ve taken some good steps forward in the right direction. In F1, though, like you see with all the big teams, it takes time: nobody comes out of the ashes and destroys their rivals. You saw this team had a very troubled season last year and, before that, well, you know the history – they’ve come from a difficult spot and just need to take a bit of time to rebuild. “Ultimately it’s tight in the midfield, although I think maybe Williams and Force India have the upper hand for now. But anything can happen during a race in that part of the field – there can be a crash, or a Safety Car, and that can bring you back into it. You need to be in the right place to take advantage of that, which is why you have to give it your best shot every time.”
What a fantastically appropriate turn of phrase for a racing driver standing on a tennis court. Even during a simple knockabout Nico visibly unwinds – a little bit – from the racing driver’s naturally defensive and cagey paddock persona. Although ‘best of three’ soon becomes ‘best three out of five’ and then ‘first to ten’, a sequence of developments that amuses performance coach Poole no end. Hand a racing driver something to be competitive about, it seems, and they just aren’t able to resist.
“Are you even sweating yet?” Davies calls across the court. “Yeah,” answers Nico. “A little bit…” His next return-of-serve is a fierce forehand sweep that directs the ball with hit her to-unparalleled velocity… quite some distance out of bounds. It’s followed into the boondocks by a ragged exclamation from Nico’s own throat: “Arrrgghhh!!!”
Perhaps it’s time, with the score declared at ten-four – by some rubric F1 Racing has been unable to fathom – for a break in play. We know he faces off against Daniil Kvyat occasionally (see p60), but who else takes to the court with the Hulk? Surely there must be a few pro players based hereabouts for tax purposes, who might be up for an all-star knockabout?
“That’s an interesting question,” he muses, “because tennis doesn’t have an off-season like F1. I can’t play against any [Monaco-based] professionals because they’re hardly ever around, even if they live here! They travel so much more than we do, following the seasons but also playing indoors. Tennis happens everywhere.
“Recently I’ve been playing Daniil Kvyat a lot. He’s based just here and we have a good laugh.”
Now, when we spoke to him, Daniil insisted that matches between the two are “quite a close match”. But here, in the very theatre of conflict, we might be able shake Nico down for intelligence on who actually wins. He takes a deep breath and exhales with just the hint of a sigh as he mulls over the question.
“He does,” answers Nico finally, “because I make too many mistakes…
“When we play for real I have no patience and I go for the big shots – they usually end up in the net or far out. I’ve won a few times, too, but I think, on balance, if I’m honest, he wins.”
The frank confession hangs in the air for a moment before the breeze carries it away. Has ever a racing driver admitted to such a thing? We should get them playing tennis more often…
“IN THE MIDFIELD, ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN DURING A RACE. THERE CAN BE A CRASH, OR A SAFETY CAR, AND THAT CAN BRING YOU BACK INTO IT. YOU NEED TO BE IN THE RIGHT PLACE TO TAKE ADVANTAGE OF THAT, WHICH IS WHY YOU HAVE TO GIVE IT YOUR BEST SHOT EVERY TIME”
Hülkenberg’s got the clobber, he’s got the skills and he’s certainly got the requisite competitive streak