As attention turned to those behind the imperious Sebastian Vettel for the fourth race in succession, one driver stood above the rest during the Korean Grand Prix.
While Vettel controlled proceedings immaculately at the front, the race was just the most recent celebration of Nico Hulkenberg’s incredible ability and only served to further highlight what F1 has a frighteningly real possibility of losing.
The man is a potential world champion. Any suggestion to the contrary is unimaginable, let alone incorrect. He has all the ingredients of being a hugely successful racing driver.
For a long time (in motorsport terms) he has been a potential man for the future, but in the past 12 months his performances have elevated him higher than that. Hulkenberg is a man for now, and there is a case to be argued that every team on the grid would benefit from having him in their ranks.
The German has, for two seasons now, displayed a talent that separates the great from the very good—the ability to extract the maximum from his car on a consistent basis.
Even before last year—when, driving a Force India, Hulkenberg challenged the McLarens for the win on merit in the Brazilian Grand Prix—he showed his talent. Remember his opportunistic and brilliant pole lap in an uncompetitive Williams in 2010?
After a year with Force India—with nowhere further up the grid to go thanks to Ferrari retaining Felipe and Massa and McLaren partnering Jenson Button with Perez—he made a sideways move to Sauber. The team started poorly, through no fault of its lead driver, but still he chipped away, picking up points here and there.
When the car became more competitive, Hulkenberg stepped up with it. His scorecard for the last three races reads fifth, ninth, fourth. His teammate, 2011 GP3 champion Esteban Gutierrez, is yet to score a point this season. Hulkenberg is 11th, with 31, courtesy of seven top 10 finishes this season, despite only reaching the final part of qualifying on four occasions (and on one of those, Canada, he was taken out of the race).
That in itself is a strong indicator of how the German works to maximise his opportunities on every occasion. It is redundant to suggest the car is not capable of these finishes. If that were true, it would not finish there. However, it is appropriate that Hulkenberg is lauded for being able to put together complete performances race after race, while his rivals falter in better cars.
Quality In Korea
In Yeongam, Hulkenberg was mighty. Jumping to fifth at the start, he fought off a chasing pack that included Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen.
While Raikkonen played the undercut to perfection, he was in a significantly faster car. With the performance gap from the Sauber to the Ferrari much narrower (though still at a deficit to Hulkenberg), and the Mercedes’ of Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg hampered by tyre wear and a front wing problem respectively, Hulkenberg pounced.
He had to do it on merit, though, passing Hamilton legitimately on the run down to Turn 3 and then using a combination of brilliant defensive nous and his Sauber’s greatest strength (good traction out of Turns 1 and 2) to keep Alonso and the two Mercedes at bay.
It was calm, assured and faultless—a microcosm of Hulkenberg’s ability in a Formula One car—and strengthened ever-growing calls for Lotus to get him on board alongside Romain Grosjean for 2014.
I’d subscribe to that view, and even go as far as suggesting that if the team maintains its position in the pecking order, it would have two Grand Prix winners by next season’s end.
Hulkenberg is not the only potential star to burn brightly this year. Grosjean, after a mixed start, is beginning to look like the driver his potential has promised for so long.
The Obvious Choice
Few doubt the Frenchman will stay on at Lotus next year, but it is imperative to continue the impressive form he has shown of late.
After a career littered with failure to fulfill his potentially prodigious talent, Grosjean’s starting to put it together. He’s experienced within the team and blends his never-doubted speed with patience and better racecraft. In recent races he has been the more impressive of the two drivers, despite Raikkonen's consecutive podiums.
If the upward trend continues, he will make the transition from good driver to race winner. There is no reason he cannot do so with his current team, even if he does not become the heir apparent to Raikkonen as De Facto team leader.
That is preferable, but not essential, for a partnership with Hulkenberg would put the Lotus’ driver pairing on a par with Mercedes, and Raikkonen’s departure would in effect be neutralised at worst. That is what fans are calling for, that is what the sport is crying out for.
For the sake of the team, Hulkenberg, and F1 in general, hopefully Lotus will listen.