Nico Hülkenberg vs Carlos Sainz is likely to be a scrap to savour in the midfield this year… not that The Hülk seems in the least bit ruffled
During a trip he makes to London, we chat to the Renault driver about beating his team-mate Carlos Sainz
Time’s tight – F1 schedules wait for no man – and we’re itching to get our interview started, but – error – we’ve made the mistake of handing Nico a copy of F1 Racing before starting chatting. And he has become somewhat engrossed, flicking intently through page after page of our December 2017 issue devoted to a certain red team. “Nico, hello… Coo-ee.”
“We’re celebrating Ferrari’s 70th anniversary in the issue,” we venture.
“I can tell,” he says, without glancing up. “There’s a lot of red.”
Hulk looks every inch the off-duty, on-duty F1 star on this ‘sponsor day’ for team watch partner Bell & Ross: groomed flaxen hair, black team jacket and grey jeans. He’s perched on a bluegrey sofa in front of a mirrored table on the first floor of a watch boutique in Burlington arcade, in the heart of London’s sumptuous Mayfair. Twinkling lights lift the city out of the murky winter gloom, as shoppers vie with commuters for pavement space in the pre-christmas throng.
“Doing any Christmas shopping while you’re in town?” we probe, trying to prise Nico away from the mag.
“Not really. I was in the factory yesterday and I’ll be in there again tomorrow for an 8am meeting.”
That’s an early start from London before driving the 70 or so miles up the M40 to Renault’s HQ in Enstone, Oxfordshire.
“We’ll have an end-of-season technical debrief, then a chat about performance, the new car, team structure, a little bit of brainstorming with all the different departments. I have a few marketing commitments now and tomorrow, then into late December it gets quiet.”
He pauses again, surveys his surroundings, then declares in a fabulously F1 moment: “I don’t know where my champagne has gone…”
Hülkenberg can afford a celebratory mood
DARK DECEMBER IN LONDON. F1 RACING IS MAKING THE JOURNEY ALONG PICCADILLY TO MEET NICO HÜLKENBERG AND DISCUSS TEAM-MATES, SCORCHING QUALIFYING PACE AND WHAT MIGHT JUST BE HIS TOUGHEST INTRATEAM CHALLENGE YET, IN 2018.
after a strong year and a determined flourish in the final race of last season. His sixth in Abu Dhabi – and ten championship points – edged Renault ahead of Toro Rosso for sixth in the constructors’ standings. That bang brought a lot of buck: the difference in prize money between sixth and eighth is just under $12million.
If the result brought audible relief from race engineer Mark Slade at the chequer, Hulk’s cool response – “That’s what I’m here for” – spoke also of his calm authority.
“Given our season with all the problems we had, we needed to deliver,” he admits. “So there was pressure, yes. Sixth is better than seventh. Fifth is better than sixth. We all know that.”
But for a ‘works’ team, with explicit ambition founded on significant investment, results matter. Renault’s Enstone factory still resembles a building site as it undergoes much-needed redevelopment and cash is being spent in less obvious ways, too. Reputable engineers, including Red Bull’s Ciaron Pilbeam have been signed, along with – controversially – the FIA’S ex-tech director Marcin Budkowski, who will start work in April. These are all signs of a team fully intent on working their way up the grid.
“We have a good bunch of people, both at the race track and back in the factory,” says Hülkenberg, who can look ahead to his second Renault season with justifiable optimism. “It’s a good working environment and it’s what I expected coming to a manufacturer team – it’s a bigger operation. All of a sudden you represent a global brand. I had an impression of that when I raced for Porsche at Le Mans: they put in money and make an investment, but they also have high ambitions – and I have some back.
“I made this point only yesterday – and with that comes pressure. It’s the nature of the sport which is a performance environment, but I have no problems with that.”
Sixth in the championship, then, can be considered a starting point – the minimum respectable placing for a team in year two of a ground-up rebuild. Now they need to kick on.
The biggest stumbling block in the pursuit for points in 2017 was reliability. Last season, Renault-powered cars picked up 300 extra
engine-related grid penalties compared to those for Mercedes and Ferrari. “The speed is there, but it depends on what our ambitions are,” continues Nico. “We competed for decent points in the midfield but we want to progress and we want to get to the front, so we have to improve.
“Reliability compromised many races and it cost us positions, points and possibly a position in the constructors’ championship. That’s one of the highest priority items for the team.”
Abiteboul, meantime, has spoken about Renault as title challengers in 2020-21, by which time Nico will be 34. One monkey he would like to have off his back by then, for any kind of challenge to arise, is his lack of a podium finish, despite having been in F1 since 2010. There have been three fourths but still no medallion.
Few doubt his speed, however. Taking last year as an example, Hülkenberg was 1.1s quicker in qualifying across the 16 races he entered with Jolyon Palmer as a team-mate.
“Really?!” he demands, as a grin develops. “That’s a lot! One second too much…” When Carlos Sainz replaced Palmer for the final four races, Nico was still quicker, but the average was down to 0.2secs. His response? Silence.
Still, across the season he had a 100 per cent qualifying record against his two team-mates, – not something that happens often (see sidebar).
“You’re the first to see it that way,” he says. “Most people count it as 19-1 because in Austin I had a car problem and wasn’t able to participate But it would have been 20-0.” No confidence issues evident here, then…
“I have to say, I’m quite satisfied with the job I’ve done in qualifying last year,” he continues. “It goes back to these new cars where I feel I can exploit the limit more, I can push more and it somehow suits my driving style.”
The prospect of a great intra-team battle at Renault will be one of the intriguing narratives of 2018, but will Nico do anything different to ensure he stays on top?
“I’m just going to keep doing my job,” he says, phlegmatically “and I’m going to keep doing it good. Me and Carlos have had four race weekends together and we have both learned a little bit about each other. It’s going to be tight.”
“ME AND CARLOS HAVE HAD FOUR RACE WEEKENDS TOGETHER AND WE HAVE BOTH LEARNED A LITTLE BIT ABOUT EACH OTHER. IT’S GOING TO BE TIGHT.”
Hülkenberg is quietly confident going into 2018, despite being faced by his toughest team-mate yet