Usually, an athlete gets one or, at a push, two bites of the cherry; if they fail to swallow it, then the mission gets aborted.
Nico Hulkenberg’s second bite of the Formula 1 cherry comes with a team that had previously turned the other cheek to him when he offered his services for 2020, but this is a very different Formula 1 to the one Hulkenberg left behind.
Haas have been on the brink and are now back on the rise again in the space of two years, with Hulkenberg carving out a reputation as Formula 1’s resident super-sub following three excellent cameo appearances for Racing Point in 2020.
Now, after two years of waiting, that would have made him feel like Robert De Niro Hulkenberg is back in Formula 1 full-time with Haas, but will the gamble pay off?
Why Haas went with Hulkenberg?
The seeds of Hulkenberg’s move to Haas began in February of this year when the team tested in Barcelona with their new car, the VF-22, showing promise.
But that optimism quickly turned into panic when Russia invaded Ukraine, causing the team to part company with its main sponsor, Uralkali, and its controversial pay driver Nikita Mazepin following the first wave of troops landing on Ukrainian soil.
Hulkenberg was rumoured to have been a contender for the Russian pay driver’s seat, but in the end, the team decided on Kevin Magnussen, a decision which would pay dividends as the Dane finished fifth on his return to Formula 1 in Bahrain.
Despite missing out on a full-time drive in 2022, Hulkenberg did find himself parachuted in at Aston Martin for Formula 1’s curtain raiser when Sebastian Vettel tested positive for Covid-19 on the eve of the race, giving the German little time to acclimatise to the car.
In his two-race cameo with the team, Hulkenberg out-qualified regular driver Lance Stroll once and brought the car home twice, albeit out of the points.
Following Bahrain, questions were being asked about Mick Schumacher’s abilities after a slew of crashes racked up an eye-watering damage bill that irked his boss Guenther Steiner into a war of words with Ralf Schumacher, earning Sky Sports Deutschland a blacklisting.
Even with points finally arriving at Silverstone and the Red Bull Ring, Mick Schumacher’s position inside the team wasn’t safe, and sensing that all wasn’t rosy inside Haas, Hulkenberg constantly rang Steiner offering his services in the hope of a drive, which was a gamble that ultimately did pay off.
Hulkenberg’s chance to crack podium drought?
In his 11-year Formula 1 career, Hulkenberg proved to be one of the fastest drivers of his generation in average machinery, but when the time came to snatch a trip to the rostrum, luck or his own driving abilities decided to go on autopilot for the day.
Now with Haas, he has one last shot to settle a score that has dogged his time in the sport, but it won’t be plain sailing.
Haas have been a team operating on a shoestring budget since its arrival in 2016, with the team having the smallest factory, workforce and even hospitality unit, meaning that they’ve had to use its loaf and keep worn-down equipment in service just to survive.
Although the team secured a new title sponsor in Moneygram, the funds pumped in will not turn the team into race winners overnight, and with the 2023 cars being an evolution of this year’s cars, Haas may be once again stuck behind Alfa Romeo and Aston Martin in the midfield battle.
As if that wasn’t enough, there is a big elephant in the very small room, and that’s whether he can work with Kevin Magnussen, who once told the German to suck a part of his genitalia following a heated battle during the 2017 Hungarian Grand Prix.
Even though the pair have shaken hands and brushed off the incident, it might boil over again if the car struggles to reach its potential and the team quickly falls behind in the midfield race.
Can it work in the long term?
However, both drivers are old enough and mature enough to keep it clean, and although they’re relatively young compared to the likes of Fernando Alonso, you would expect the most senior pairing on the grid not to behave like two feuding stock car drivers on the way to dinner.
That being said, Magnussen’s on-track relationship with Romain Grosjean was at times rocky, with the nadir of the partnership being the British and German Grand Prix in 2019 when the pair collided in consecutive races forcing Steiner into an expletive-laden rant captured by the Netflix cameras.
Hulkenberg won’t be given as much time as Schumacher did to prove himself at Haas. If he fails to do substantially better, then his younger compatriot Steiner may need to tap into the young driver market, hoping to secure the services of the next flavour of the month.
The one consolation for all parties involved is that the team’s future won’t be at stake with Moneygram’s backing, but for Steiner, the gamble to drop Schumacher for Hulkenberg may help determine how long he continues at the helm of Formula 1’s youngest team.