Over the Japanese Grand Prix weekend, rumours of Nico Hülkenberg making a surprise switch to Renault for 2017 ramped up a notch after reports in German media claimed the deal was all but done.
Logistically, a move to Renault is entirely possible: although Hülkenberg is signed to Force India for next year, his contract reportedly contains a buyout clause if a manufacturer comes knocking. But would the German really want to sacrifice his secure position in a podium contending team for a works drive at the back of the field?
Harsh though it may sound, Renault could well be Hülkenberg’s only remaining chance at a top team drive. Both Mercedes and Red Bull are committed to a future of promoting from within their own junior ranks; and despite interest in the past, Ferrari has made it plain that its affections have moved on from Hülkenberg to the likes of Max Verstappen and Sergio Pérez.
If Hülkenberg is still serious about driving for a manufacturer team in Formula 1 – and he insists that he is – that only leaves Renault or McLaren-Honda. And although neither team are particularly desirable at the moment, Hülkenberg will no doubt keep his missed shots at Ferrari in the back of his mind as he weighs up an offer from Renault.
At 29 and approaching his eighth season in F1, Hülkenberg’s career stands at a critical point. In all that time, he has never progressed beyond the midfield and many observers believe that his chance to do so has passed. Add to that his arguable overshadowing alongside Pérez in recent years, and it wouldn’t be too astonishing to see Hülkenberg seize the chance with Renault whilst it’s there.
As for Renault, the appeal of Nico Hülkenberg is obvious. Leaving aside his reputation and glittering CV for the moment, one of the best arrows in Hülkenberg’s quiver is his ability to lift a lower-midfield car up above its station. Take, for example, his pole position with Williams at the 2010 Brazilian Grand Prix, or the 29 laps spent leading the same race two years later with Force India.
But perhaps of most significance to Renault will be Hülkenberg’s year with Sauber in 2013, in which he helped lead the team from scrapping over tenth and eleventh to scoring several solid top six finishes by the end of the season. It’s this ability to move a poor car forward that Renault so sorely needs right now, and it’s this that would make Nico Hülkenberg an invaluable asset to the French marque in 2017.
Unfortunately, the flipside of this move is that it would mean the loss of either Kevin Magnussen or Jolyon Palmer – or even both of them, if Esteban Ocon takes the second Renault seat as many expect.
At present, there are still some eleven seats available for 2017, though only a handful of them could actually be considered viable havens for the two current Renault drivers. Magnussen arguably has the greater pool of options should he leave Renault, and would certainly not be unwelcome at Haas after the American team marked him down as their second choice last year if they couldn’t tempt over Romain Grosjean.
For Palmer, his best bet is likely Manor, as the backmarker team looks set to yield up Pascal Wehrlein to Hülkenberg’s vacant Force India seat, even if Ocon doesn’t move to Renault as well.
James Matthews, Editor-at-Large