AFTER taking victory in the 83rd Le Mans 24 Hours in his first ever appearance, Nico Hülkenberg’s reputation as one of the most versatile drivers of all time has been well and truly justified.
But now the question Hülkenberg should perhaps be asking himself is whether his future lies in Formula One or sportscars.
The fact that the 27 year-old still hasn’t challenged for the F1 title in a leading team is, quite frankly, a sad reflection of the pinnicle of motorsport.
Hülkenberg’s CV in single seaters was the determining factor in Porsche’s initial approach for the German. Winning the A1GP title in convincing fashion in 2006-07, driving the Zytek V8 to nine wins, he showed his class in front of season veteran’s Robbie Kerr, Nicolas Lappiere and future Porsche LMP1 team-mate Neel Jani.
A year later, Hülkenberg swept to seven victories as he strolled to the F3 Euroseries title in only his second season in the category.
Two major titles in two years for the then 21 year-old was just the tip of the iceberg as 12 months later, Hülkenberg bagged yet another series win. More impressively he took the GP2 Series in his rookie season – with 5 wins and beating future F1 drivers Vitaly Petrov, Lucas di Grassi, Pastor Maldonado and Romain Grosjesan – and ended 2009 with a Williams race seat in Formula One.
This should have been the opening of the floodgates for the German. But a difficult debut year at the top left him looking elsewhere for a drive, as Williams struggled with budget issues. A maiden pole position for Hülkenberg in changing conditions underlined his immense talent behind the wheel, but his F1 career was put on hold, at least temporarily.
Successive season at Force India – first as test and reserve drvier in 2011 and then race driver for 2012 – produced yet more evidence that Hülkenberg was set for career stardom. Leading the season ending Brazilian Grand Prix in 2012 and proving more than a match for the in-form McLaren of Lewis Hamilton could have yielded his first ever podium, but for a crash dropped him out of contention.
In his search for the crucial breakthrough, Hülkenberg was in danger of developing a reputation for constantly changing teams. One year racing for Force India, he then jumped ship to Sauber, who had showed promise in 2012 – with podiums for Sergio Pérez and Kamui Kobayashi. Again, in a poor car initially, Hülkenberg dragged the team back to the fringes of the podium by the end of the year.
2014 saw him return to Force India where he has stayed ever since. That year brought him and the team relative success with a ecent car throughout the year. But despite rumours linking the German to the soon to be vacant Ferrari seat of Fernando Alonso, a top line drive eluded him once more.
With Hülkenberg seemingly resigned to remaining in the midfield as far as Formula One was concerned, Porsche came knocking on his door.
He signed at the start of the year and took part in his first race at the 6 Hours of Spa Francorchamps in preparation for the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Prior to the start of the mammoth endurance race, he drove in the pre-race official test day two weeks before.
Qualifying a superb third on the gird – due in part to a far superior Porsche 919 Hybrid machine and a lack of real qualifying intent from Audi – proved exceptional, especially given that he had teamed up with fellow rookie Earl Bamber.
Luck plays a part in any endurance race and even more so at Le Mans. The 13km Circuit de la Sarthe and the 24 hour duration makes it impossible not to encounter or be the victim of luck.
First piece of luck: The #19 Porsche of Bamber, Nick Tandy and Hülkenberg drove sensibly and stayed out of trouble. Trouble that hit the leading #7 Audi of past winners André Lotterer, Benoît Tréluyer ands Marcel Fässler early on – a puncture force them to pit soon after their scheduled stop – and the #8 chasing Audi of Loïc Duval – smashing his car against the barriers after avoiding slow traffic – which ultimately helped clear the way for the #19 lead as dawn neared.
Second piece of luck: Team-mate Mark Webber in the #17 Porsche had been the early beneficiary of Audi’s bad luck but this car too had luck play a cruel part in their fortunes. A one minute penalty for passing under yellow flags meant Hülkenberg hit the front.
Third piece of luck: the safety car then came out to retrieve the #46 LMP2 car of Tristan Gommendy after being hit by a GTE car. Hülkenberg’s #19 car was one of the cars separated from one of the three safety cars deployed, ensuring he took a big lead into the night.
But luck has but a scarce infuence on the overall result. Without the pumping in of lightning speed lap times from the German and his two team-mates Bamber and Tandy, as well as precise pit work from the Porsche mechanics, victory in the most prestigious race would not have been possible.