Daniel Ricciardo of Australia and Red Bull Racing talks with Nico Hulkenberg of Germany and Renault Sport F1 in the Drivers Press Conference during previews ahead of the Azerbaijan Formula One Grand Prix at Baku City Circuit on April 26, 2018 in Baku, Azerbaijan. (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)

Nico Hulkenberg has become “the nearly man” of Formula 1 in recent seasons. The German, popularly known as “the Hulk”, has been considered for top drives, but has not been able to seal the deal. Hulkenberg’s move to the Renault Sport F1 team in 2017 was based on future potential of the team rather than current record.

What does Daniel Ricciardo’s Move Mean For Nico Hulkenberg?

The Renault team has improved and has been on an upward trajectory since 2017. But the podium finish Hulkenberg has been looking for has eluded him so far.

Nico Hulkenberg’s Formula 1 Career

In 2010, Hulkenberg debuted in F1 with the Williams team and a 14th place finish in the drivers’ championship was the end result. Four full seasons at Force India (2012, 2014-2016) did not yield a single podium. Hulkenberg had two ninth-place finishes, a 10th and 11th place finish in the drivers’ championship to show for it.

In 2013, a short sojourn to Sauber in the hopes of better prospects had dashed his hopes. A 10th place finish in the championship with a declining team was all that was possible.

Hulkenberg’s move from Force India to Renault in 2017 was inevitable. Force India with its limited resources was punching above its weight. But it was a team far away from a race win, let alone winning any titles. There seemed to be no opening at the top 3 teams – Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull Racing.

Hulkenberg had been seriously considered for a drive by Ferrari as Felipe Massa’s replacement, before they signed Kimi Raikkonen in 2014. The Maranello-based team rather cruelly broke the news of the end of contract talks to Hulkenberg with a text message.

The Renault Move

In 2016, Renault had returned to the sport by buying back the Lotus F1 team (formerly owned by the French manufacturer until 2010). In 2017, Renault was looking for a team leader to help them chart their way back to winning ways in F1. Hulkenberg was the best driver available on the market. For the German, driving for a works team willing to put in the resources to move themselves up the ladder was more attractive than driving for a perennial midfield team like Force India.

In his first season at Renault, Hulkenberg finished 10th in the drivers’ championship and finished P6 four times in 20 races. It must have felt like déjà vu for the talented German. But it was always about future potential at Renault.

The 2018 season has brought improved results for Renault. The team is fourth in the constructors’ championship and leads the tightly bunched midfield teams. Hulkenberg is in seventh-place in the drivers’ championship, “the best of the rest” behind the six drivers of the top 3 teams.

The Elusive Podium

Hulkenberg has the distinction of winning the Le Mans 24 Hour race in 2015. He had already achieved what Fernando Alonso has famously done in this 2018 season. But even a podium has eluded him in F1. The affable German holds the unenviable record of having the most starts without being on the podium even once in Grand Prix races (147 starts so far).

Hulkenberg’s best finish has been three P4 finishes in seven full seasons in F1. Flashes of speed and brilliance in qualification have always been Hulkenberg’s hallmark. In shambolic races, when drivers have taken advantage and won or clinched podiums, luck has eluded him.

At Force India, Hulkenberg’s teammate Sergio Perez clinched four podium finishes in the three seasons they were together (2014-2016). But a fourth-place finish at the Belgian GP in 2016 was the best result for Hulkenberg in those seasons. So the quest for the first podium and race win continues.

Daniel Ricciardo as Teammate in 2019

In his season and a half at Renault so far, Hulkenberg has beaten his teammates, Jolyon Palmer and Carlos Sainz, decisively. But for 2019, a proven race winner Daniel Ricciardo joins the Renault team. Ricciardo has been the “King of Opportunism” winning a majority of his races coming from the back.

Ricciardo will present Hulkenberg with the biggest challenge any teammate has ever posed in his career so far. A comparative look at the German and Australian’s records in F1:

Nico Hulkenberg Daniel Ricciardo
Age 30 29
Full Seasons 7 6
Race Starts 147 141
Fastest Laps 2 13
Pole Positions 1 2
Podiums 0 29
Race Wins 0 7
Career Points 457 934
*Ricciardo drove for HRT for 11 races in 2011
*Results include the 12 races of the current 2018 season

Ricciardo has the better record by far. The Australian has two third-place finishes in the drivers’ championship in his career (2014, 2016). But he has had the advantage of driving a race winning car at Red Bull.

Hulkenberg has never had a car of that quality any time in his career. Ricciardo’s two-year stint at Toro Rosso in inferior machinery yielded only an 18th and 14th place in the drivers’ championship (2012, 2013).

The Last Word

In equal machinery at Renault in 2019, a Hulkenberg vs Ricciardo battle will be one to savour. Hulkenberg was the GP2 champion in 2009, a Le Mans winner in 2015. The German has always believed he deserves a break with the top teams. But the doors have never opened for him.

In a Renault team on the upswing, Hulkenberg will have the chance to benchmark himself against one of the best drivers in the business in Ricciardo. Both drivers will hope they can fight for podiums and wins with the French team over the next two seasons. Hulkenberg has been the unchallenged team leader at Renault. The arrival of a high profile driver like Ricciardo will spell an end to that in 2019. But the German will hope to fight with the Australian on equal terms.

For the winner of this team battle between these two talented drivers, massive opportunities will open up in 2021 with the top teams. Or who knows Renault itself might be challenging for the top spot in F1. So it is all to play for over the next two seasons for Nico Hulkenberg and Daniel Ricciardo. May the best driver win!!

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