NICO HÜLKENBERG

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

F1 Racing (UK) - - CONTENTS - WORDS JAMES ROBERTS POR­TRAITS DREW GIB­SON

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.”

No re­sponse.

“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

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