With the dust largely having settled on the 2013 silly-season following some high profile driver moves, the focus is now very much on Sauber driver Nico Hulkenberg. The German, who has put in some impressive drives this year, may have just lost out on a Ferrari drive to Kimi Raikkonen, but is in pole position to replace the Finn at Lotus. However, while Lotus have made no secret of the fact that Hulkenberg is their top choice, the Enstone-based squad needs a long-delayed investment deal to close before they can commit to a driver.
Abhishek Takle spoke to Hulkenberg over the Indian Grand Prix weekend about his future, his season with Sauber and that stunning third place in qualifying at Monza.
ABHISHEK TAKLE: Nico, thanks for taking the time out to talk to me today. Let’s talk about your season. You joined Sauber hoping for podiums, I’m assuming. But that wasn’t quite the case, initially struggling for points and there’s been an upturn in form recently again with the car. How would you describe your season?
NICO HULKENBERG: I have to clarify that a bit. I wasn’t signing up here thinking we were just going to be on the podium. That would be very naïve and unrealistic, but I was signing here in the hope and in the faith of having a strong performance and last year’s performance and car was definitely strong and had a lot of strong results and performance in it and I was hoping for that again this year. We know then from 2012 to 2013 few things have changed, the regulations were pretty stable but tyres, etc., etc. and unfortunately we found ourselves not as strong as we would have liked to be in the beginning of the season, pretty much half-way through the season, we were struggling. Only seven points in, I don’t know, eight-nine races, or whatever it was. So pretty tough start to the year. Not tough, more so disappointing is probably the right word. But then the team never gave up, kept working hard, kept ticking away and I think there’s a combination of factors coming together why we’re moving up now so much.
AT: Right so would that be the tyres, would that be that the upgrades have started coming now with the financial situation a bit clearer?
NH: I think everything together. I think the tyres have done their bit as well and helped it. Then we introduced a major upgrade in Budapest. For me personally, I see the positive trend starting to come up since Nurburgring and that was the race before Budapest. Then Budapest we got the big upgrade together with the new tyres so it’s difficult to tell which one is doing what. But for sure we measure more downforce with the upgrade package we brought. So that has helped a lot. And then I think our general understanding of how to set up the car which is you know basic, simple set up things which we have in the car, set up tools, we have learned how to get around some of the weaknesses from the car and you know, masking them, and that has helped significantly as well.
AT: Going to get this next one out of the way. I’m sure your tired of answering it as well. What’s the update on your negotiations with Lotus? Because you had said you wanted a clarification by the end of this month.
NH: I said I would like to. (laughs) That is the ideal scenario.
AT: Like to, yes. That’s why I avoided using the word deadline…
NH: That is what I hope for. See everybody wants to have security rather sooner than later, but sometimes, things take a bit longer and don’t happen overnight and you’ve got to be patient. That’s the game in Formula One. There is still no news, still no decision in terms of my future. Still having contacts and negotiations with a couple of teams so we’re still in the process of sorting it out and hoping to select the right one.
AT: And have Lotus said they might be able to get back to you by the end of the month?
We’re talking, obviously and there’s always updates and situations but can’t really talk about it too much detail there.
AT: Eric Boullier was saying that he wouldn’t want to commit to a driver unless he got his investment sorted out with the Quantum consortium. So is that one of the major sticking points in the negotiations? Because obviously you want the financial surety because again this year there were some financial issues at Sauber as well.
NH: Yes, you do want. Of course that’s an important point nowadays in Formula One just for a team to be able to keep the development up, to keep going, to keep being competitive. It is an expensive sport to run if you’ve noticed, it’s no secret. I think for the team, for themselves, for Lotus, I think it is important to find that deal and finalise it and have the security and stability.
AT: Because you found yourself in a similar situation at Sauber where I think around Silverstone the team said they owed you some salary which hadn’t been cleared at that point. And then you’re reading all these stories about Kimi also not being paid. So does that worry you while talking to Lotus in any way?
NH: No, I think Kimi has a very different salary to mine (Laughs). That is the first point, it is a lot larger. You know, I think, it will be a different case. Things change and I’m not super worried about that. I think you have three-four big teams which are financially quite stable. Everybody else is struggling a little bit in terms of finance so it’s difficult.
AT: Every Sunday you turn up, you put in the performances that is expected of you, you’re impressing on the track, doing the job on the track but for some reason or the other the call from the bigger teams doesn’t seem to come. Is that annoying in any way that some drivers are bringing money with them and that plays a role. Because you’re doing the job on the track.
NH: Yeah, yeah, I do. But on the other hand it’s only my third year. I’m still relatively fresh and young in Formula One. And it’s very rarely that someone – only Lewis comes into my mind – comes into Formula One and is right away in a top team and in a competitive car. Most of the drivers have to earn their way through and really fight for a top drive and maybe it’s not the time yet but I think my performances show that I would be ready to deliver good things.
AT: You have Dekra backing but it’s not as…
NH: No, Dekra is just my personal sponsorship, there is no backing, no money to the team.
AT: But would you consider going down that route where you start looking for money because you wouldn’t be a pay driver in the traditional sense…
NH: Stop. No.
AT: No? You wouldn’t be a pay driver in the traditional sense right, you’ve already proven you can do the job…
NH: Yeah but it’s not my mentality. For me the minute where teams expect me to bring money to do what I’m best at and what I’m good at, for me that’s wrong and I don’t want to do that. That’s not the right way.
AT: And your options outside of Lotus and Sauber? What are the teams you’re in talks with? Force India is one name that has been mentioned.
NH: Well only what I can say is there is a couple. I don’t really want to go into too much detail and into names.
AT: Moving on to a happier topic now – Monza. Was that a surprise P3 because like you said the car started showing an improvement from Nurburgring but it only showed in the results starting that weekend with that P3 and then the race result as well. Was that a big surprise?
NH: Well Nurburgring we got some points already. Budapest we were not far away. But Monza was a huge surprise especially qualifying to come out of Q3 with third place was incredible. Nobody, really, nobody expected it going into qualifying, into the third part, prior to Q3 we were discussing on the radio, what is realistic, what we can achieve, what we’re doing in terms of tyres and strategy looking in front and ahead for the race and at best we were thinking sixth. But then to do the lap and come around in third… I mean when I did the lap I felt it was a very, very good lap and the perfect lap for me and the car, but I had no idea what the others were doing obviously. It felt pretty good from inside the car but then, yeah, it was a big, big surprise but obviously one of the best moments of the season.
AT: And did you expect you would be able to carry that forward into the next races, because Monza is very unique isn’t it, in terms of the demands on the car, the set-up and everything, so did you expect to carry that forward?
NH: Well we didn’t carry it forward right away. We had Singapore in between after Monza which was kind of… for us it was a crucial and critical race because up to that point low speed corners were toxic for us, that is what we struggled with, the car didn’t like it. So that was the ultimate test for us to see whether we’ve made an improvement in step or not and I think there again we proved we got some points, maybe a bit lucky but our performance was reasonable and that for us was the confirmation that we are moving in the right direction. Obviously then Korea, Japan, finished fourth and sixth and also Esteban seventh was really, really positive.
AT: And did you expect…
NH: Not expected. I mean the fourth place in Korea, I think, really we outperformed some drivers and teams which we normally don’t do and I think it was just down to us to… we did a brilliant job on that day and therefore punched above our weight but normally, on a normal raceday, if it wasn’t for me, if I wasn’t in front of the Ferrari and Lewis, I think they were quite a lot in front.
AT: And now we’re here. You got that fourth in Korea, that sixth and seventh in Japan. Can you carry that forward through to the end of the year, is that the target now, to catch up to Force India?
NH: That is for sure the target. We can’t really go into the last four races and say we expect fourth, fifth, sixth places all the time now, you know. That would be silly. We need to make sure we do our homework like we did in the recent events where we put everything together and I’m quite confident we can be in the points a few times for the last couple of races.
AT: Many people initially questioned your move from Force India to here and now Force India are looking over their shoulders back at you because you’re coming back at them so no regrets about that move at all?
NH: Regret is a big word. I have been asked this question so many times! Obviously at the beginning of the year things were looking not good. Force India had very good performance, we were struggling a lot. Now it’s sort of different completely, twisted and turned, so it’s quite a strange season from that point of view but you take decisions in life and you have to stand behind them. Some are good, some are not so good. I think everybody has an individual opinion about that. I’m happy where I am.
AT: Wanted your take on the 2014 regulations. People are saying it’s going to be a fuel saving formula. As a racer what do you think about that?
NH: The racer heart in me obviously doesn’t like that idea but again there is a lot of talk and speculation out there what it’s going to be like. We have this limited fuel capacity which might be tight in some races and in others it might be less crucial. I don’t really know. So I think it’s a wait and see case, how it is. But if it turns out to be the case we have to fuel save a lot and can’t really push in races obviously for me from a driver point of view that’s not very good, not very nice.
Image courtesy Octane Photographic