5 Drivers Who Could Replace Nico Hulkenberg at Force India in 2017 F1 Season

Oliver Harden@@OllieHardenFeatured ColumnistOctober 15, 2016

5 Drivers Who Could Replace Nico Hulkenberg at Force India in 2017 F1 Season

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    Nico Hulkenberg is to leave Force India for Renault at the end of 2016.
    Nico Hulkenberg is to leave Force India for Renault at the end of 2016.Clive Rose/Getty Images

    Force India would never have expected to be forced into this. Not now, anyway.

    Throughout the summer, the team fought ever so hard to keep Sergio Perez, the most successful driver in their history, who—despite signing a contract extension for the 2017 Formula One season—was still at risk of being taken away by his personal sponsors.

    When Perez's future was finally resolved at the recent Malaysian Grand Prix, it seemed Force India would have the stability they required ahead of next year's major regulation changes, only for their other driver to suddenly head for the exit door.

    Nico Hulkenberg's surprise switch to Renault has plunged Force India back into the depths of the transfer market, with the team now looking for a suitable replacement for a driver who—along with Perez—is likely to guide them to a best-ever finish of fourth in the 2016 constructors' championship.

    Here, we nominate five drivers who could succeed Hulkenberg in 2017.

Pascal Wehrlein

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    Dan Istitene/Getty Images

    As he comes to the end of an impressive debut season, Pascal Wehrlein has a big decision to make as far as his F1 future is concerned.

    Should he continue to grow with the improving Manor team, for whom he—having scored their first point since 2014 in July's Austrian GP—has become just as important as the late Jules Bianchi? 

    Or, with a future Mercedes seat his ultimate goal, is now the right time to take the next step and join a more established midfield outfit?

    In truth, the German might not have much say in the matter.

    Wehrlein had been widely expected to stay with Manor for a second season but recently cast doubt over his own future by revealing he may be effectively forced out of the team at the end of 2016.

    Per Autosport (h/t Eurosport), Wehrlein admitted "it could be hard" to stay put for 2017 if a herd of pay drivers tease a team who emerged from administration less than two years ago.

    Should the money offered by those pay drivers prove to be more attractive to Manor than the engine-plus-driver deal provided by Mercedes, Wehrlein may be left with no option but to leave in order to keep his F1 career alive.

    And with Williams almost certain to sign well-funded teenager Lance Stroll for next season, fellow Mercedes customers Force India will represent his best chance of remaining on the grid.

    Wehrlein represented Force India in various test sessions throughout 2015, and with the Silverstone-based outfit making no secret of their financial struggles in recent years, strengthening their relationship with Mercedes by signing a driver with direct links to the Silver Arrows could ease that burden on the team.

    As reported by Motorsport.com's Roberto Chinchero and Jonathan Noble, Wehrlein recently asked the Manor hierarchy to afford him more time before committing to the team for next season in the hope of filling a potential vacancy at Force India.

    And with Hulkenberg now gone, that seat is his for the taking.

Esteban Ocon

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    Dan Istitene/Getty Images

    Throughout this season, we have been led to believe Esteban Ocon will drive for Renault in 2017.

    Renault's decision to sign Ocon as a reserve driver at the beginning of 2016—despite his status as a Mercedes protege—offered an indication of their plans and their determination to have a French driver behind the wheel of a French car.

    And Renault managing director Cyril Abiteboul's comment to Manor's official website following Ocon's move to the backmarkers seemed to act as confirmation he was assured of a place at Team Enstone. 

    "I hope this experience will be of great benefit for him and for Renault in the near future," Abiteboul said. 

    But now, who knows?

    Despite signing Hulkenberg, Renault are still very active in the transfer market, with Autosport (h/t Eurosport) reporting the team are in discussions with Valtteri Bottas, who is still yet to agree a contract extension with Williams.

    Their pursuit of Bottas—having already captured a driver of Hulkenberg's calibre—appears to signal a change of approach for Renault, who originally seemed set to partner Ocon with a more experienced driver but now appear determined to sign the best possible pairing for 2017.

    If that is the case, Ocon—a fully fledged Mercedes driver once more—must explore alternative options.

    Should Wehrlein graduate to Force India, the 20-year-old could remain with Manor in the same team-leader role the German has held throughout 2016, yet Ocon may still pip his current team-mate to a promotion.

    Although he has generally struggled alongside Wehrlein in his five F1 appearances to date, Ocon is deemed to have greater ultimate potential, with Force India concluding the Frenchman "is the more promising" of the two after evaluating both drivers in 2015, per F1 journalist James Allen.

    Given a free choice, the team would probably prefer to sign Ocon than Mercedes' "little prince."

Felipe Nasr

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    Mark Thompson/Getty Images

    The tale of Felipe Nasr's 2016 season is a case of what can happen when a promising young racing driver is given the wrong car at exactly the wrong time.

    After an impressive rookie season in 2015, when he guided Sauber to eighth in the championship, this should have been the year he moved to the next level, sealing a return to Williams as the heir to Felipe Massa or even emerging as an ideal No. 2 to Sebastian Vettel at Ferrari.

    Instead, the Brazilian—struggling with the fundamentally flawed C35 car—is among the three drivers with a full-time race seat yet to score a point in 2016, and the opportunities that should have come his way have simply passed him by.

    With his options rapidly running out, Nasr recently admitted defeat by pretending he would be happy to remain with Sauber for a third season, suggesting the team are "going in the right direction" following Longbow Finance's takeover in July, per Crash.net.

    Yet the Swiss outfit's decision to compete with year-old Ferrari power units in 2017, per Motorsport.com's Noble, will signify the end of Sauber as a serious F1 team in a season when the removal of the token system will allow manufacturers to develop their engines with more freedom.

    That warning sign should encourage Nasr to force a way—any way he can—out of a team in terminal decline.

    In that sense, Hulkenberg's departure from Force India has come at the perfect time for Nasr, creating another potential lifeline when he seemed certain to get comfortable in Sauber's coffin.

    His personal backing from Banco do Brasil—worth up to £12 million, according to the Press Association (h/t the Guardian)—would be welcome at a team who have accommodated the relatively sponsorless Hulkenberg for several years.

    And the way Force India matured Perez and Hulkenberg—to the point where they formed the best driver lineup outside of a leading team—would allow Nasr to rediscover the momentum his career has lost in 2016.

Jolyon Palmer

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    Clive Rose/Getty Images

    Where there's a will, there's a way.

    As reported by a print edition of F1 Racing magazine, Renault were desperate to drop both Jolyon Palmer and Kevin Magnussen at the end of 2016, but their failure to capture their main targets made it likely one of the two incumbents would earn a reprieve.

    The arrival of Hulkenberg, however, marks the beginning of the end for the two current drivers, and with another new signing—be it Bottas, Ocon or another name—set to follow, both Magnussen and Palmer will almost certainly be searching for new employers in 2017.

    Despite his unconvincing performances in 2016, Magnussen is thought to have more long-term potential than his team-mate, but Palmer's greater financial backing means he may have more options to remain on the grid beyond this season.

    And Force India, who gave the 25-year-old his first F1 test in late 2014, represent the best of those options.

    Even before he was confirmed as a Renault driver at the end of last year, it was obvious Palmer—with no previous grand prix experience—was unsuited to the role of leading a full-blown factory team upon their return to the grid.

    After fighting a losing battle at Renault, Palmer—who has impressed Team Enstone with his "commitment and work ethic" in 2016, per F1 Racing—could blossom in the less fashionable, more organised and plucky atmosphere at Force India, who are renowned for harnessing a driver's potential.

    And then there is the recent news—as reported by Autosport (h/t Eurosport)—that the MotorSport Vision company owned by Palmer's father, former F1 driver Jonathan, has made a bid to purchase the Silverstone circuit where Force India are based.

    Could that potential deal boost his hopes of replacing Hulkenberg? Maybe, maybe not.

Esteban Gutierrez

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    Mark Thompson/Getty Images

    Haas initially planned to confirm their 2017 driver lineup shortly after September's Italian GP, but more than a month later, an announcement is still yet to be made.

    "We will be ready when we are ready, put it this way. We're not in a big hurry, so we'll just take our time," team principal Guenther Steiner recently told Motorsport.com's Adam Cooper.

    With Romain Grosjean set to remain with the team for a second season, the delay has created yet more uncertainty over the future of Esteban Gutierrez, who—having failed to score a point and frequently criticised Haas in public throughout 2016—risks talking his way out of F1.

    Yet such is the nature of modern F1 that a driver as frustrating and undeserving of a place on the grid as Gutierrez—with just one top-10 finish in almost three seasons—may yet find a way to land firmly on his feet.

    When the speculation surrounding Perez's future was at its peak, Motorsport.com's Chinchero and Noble reported a swap deal with Gutierrez, who is supported by the same Mexican sponsors as the Force India driver, had emerged as a possibility. 

    Although that agreement failed to come to fruition, could the two Mexican drivers now meet in the same team?

    A Perez-Gutierrez lineup would further strengthen Force India's relationship with their existing sponsors and no doubt lead to more speculation that Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim is looking to purchase the team—a rumour dismissed by deputy team boss Bob Fernley, per Adam Cooper.

    At a time Force India are claiming the best results in their history, however, signing Gutierrez would represent a significant step back—especially as Perez needs his compatriot to stay with Haas to enhance his chances of eventually joining Ferrari.

    After all, one of the reasons Perez is regarded as the leading candidate to replace Kimi Raikkonen is the presence of his sponsors—including Telcel and Claro—on the Ferrari cars since Gutierrez joined the Prancing Horse in a reserve role at the beginning of 2015.

    The departure of Gutierrez—and potentially all those logos—could harm Perez's prospects, and it would benefit all parties if the latter were to remain where he is for one more year.