Will Nico Hulkenberg's Le Mans 24 Hours Win Affect His Formula 1 Prospects?

Oliver Harden@@OllieHardenFeatured ColumnistJune 16, 2015

LE MANS, FRANCE - JUNE 14:  The Porsche Team 919 Hybrid of (L-R) Nick Tandy of Great Britain, Earl Bamber of New Zealand and Nico Hulkenburg of Germany celebrate on the podium after winning the Le Mans 24 Hour race at the Circuit de la Sarthe on June 14, 2015 in Le Mans, France.  (Photo by Ker Robertson/Getty Images)
Ker Robertson/Getty Images

Having spent so much of his career in the shadows, Nico Hulkenberg finally had a day in the sun last weekend.

Less than seven days after finishing eighth for Force India in the Canadian Grand Prix, the German started the Le Mans 24 Hours in the second of a two-race deal with Porsche, the most successful manufacturer in the event's history.

Despite starting the race with the fastest car at his disposal—Porsche had secured a one-two-three result in qualifying—expectations, given Hulkenberg's lack of experience in sportscar racing, were muted.

Indeed, it was telling that the Audi cars swarmed Hulkenberg's 919 Hybrid so soon after the start, penetrating Porsche's early stranglehold by relegating the new boy to fifth as though they had identified him as the weak link.

Hulkenberg was pressurised by the Audis in the early stages at Le Mans.
Hulkenberg was pressurised by the Audis in the early stages at Le Mans.Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Yet as the race wore on, and those around hit trouble, Hulkenberg and his co-drivers, fellow rookie Earl Bamber and Nick Tandy, found themselves in control in the cover of darkness. It was where they remained when the sun poked its head through the trees on Sunday morning.

And just a week after finishing a lap behind the race winner, Hulkenberg, who was handed the honour of caressing the car to the chequered flag, was the race winner, a lap, a lifetime ahead of the rest of the field.

Hulkenberg's triumph, the first by an active F1 driver at Le Mans since Johnny Herbert in 1991, was a hugely significant moment in modern-day motor racing and one that could potentially alter the trajectory of his career.

After all, all Hulkenberg has ever craved, all he has ever needed, is the chance to make headlines, to put himself on a pedestal, to put his name in lights as bright as the stars that hung over the Circuit de la Sarthe on Saturday night.

Unable to do that on a regular basis in F1, where he has spent his career in average-to-mediocre machinery, he put himself in a position to do so at Le Mans, where the ramifications of victory—his first podium finish of any kind in six years—could mean more than the prestige of victory itself.

As much as his agreement with Porsche, announced at the end of last year, was a welcome throwback to a bygone era when drivers—before the days of multi-clause, constraining contracts—would compete in a range of categories, there was an inescapable feeling that Hulkenberg was putting plans in place for life after F1. 

LE MANS, FRANCE - JUNE 13:  The Porsche Team 919 Hybrid of Earl Bamber, Nick Tandy and Nico Hulkenburg drives during the Le Mans 24 Hour race at the Circuit de la Sarthe on June 13, 2015 in Le Mans, France.  (Photo by Ker Robertson/Getty Images)
Ker Robertson/Getty Images

Force India's financial problems—deputy team principal Bob Fernley told Sky Sports' Pete Gill how "cash-flow issues" were behind the delayed introduction of their 2015 car—coupled with Hulkenberg's inability to provide the team with notable sponsorship funds, meant the German's place at the team was in some degree of doubt at the start of this season.

Motorsport.com reported in pre-season how Force India parachuted Mercedes reserve driver Pascal Wehrlein into the car in testing in place of Hulkenberg to compensate for unpaid "engine bills," and there was a possibility this would soon become a full-time arrangement.

Is Hulkenberg's Force India future under threat?
Is Hulkenberg's Force India future under threat?Mark Thompson/Getty Images

Yet the recognition that comes with winning Le Mans means Hulkenberg may now attract the interest of sponsors and partners who could not only help him consolidate his place at Force India, but finally present him with an opportunity to move toward the front of the grid.

Should Kimi Raikkonen continue to struggle to perform alongside Sebastian Vettel at Ferrari, it is plausible the Prancing Horse could discard the 2007 world champion at the end of the season, creating a stampede for one of the most hallowed seats in F1.

If Bottas replaces Raikkonen at Ferrari, could Hulkenberg be in line for a return to Williams?
If Bottas replaces Raikkonen at Ferrari, could Hulkenberg be in line for a return to Williams?Paul Gilham/Getty Images

Although that particular race would almost certainly be won by Valtteri Bottas—according to Bild (h/t Motorsport.com), Ferrari team boss Maurizio Arrivabene failed to deny the Finn has a pre-contract agreement with the Italian outfit—a well-funded Hulkenberg would be in a strong position to replace him at Williams, with whom his own career began in 2010 and who, per BBC Sport, announced a loss of £42.5 million for 2014.

As well as aiding his personal prospects, Hulkenberg's success at Le Mans may act as a bridge between Formula One and the World Endurance Championship, two categories which, for all their similarities, are poles apart.

Since its inception in 2012, the WEC has emerged as a credible alternative to the self-appointed pinnacle of motorsport, with its modern outlook—see its dropping of grid girls for this season—and its relatively relaxed rules when it comes to car design, as well as its encouragement of hybrid technology, at odds with F1.

The WEC's boom at a time the F1 bubble is bursting—overly complex regulations, processional racing, struggling teams and, as reported by MailOnline's Nick Harris and Christian Sylt, falling television figures—has resulted in frequent comparisons between the series, with that tribalism particularly evident over the course of the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Yet as a driver who has now excelled in both categories at the same time, perhaps Hulkenberg can become a link between, and an ambassador for, the two championships, a permanent reminder that different disciplines of motorsport should be embraced and work together, not as rivals.

As he returns to the day job in this weekend's Austrian Grand Prix at the Red Bull Ring, cutting short his post-Le Mans celebrations, Hulkenberg will be aware that the next few months will be potentially career-defining. 

His previous headline-making exploits at the 2010 Brazilian GP, where he set a surprise pole position in wet conditions, and his challenge for the win at the same race in 2012 were not fully capitalised upon, with the German losing his Williams seat for 2011 and moving from Force India to the uncompetitive Sauber team for 2013.

They were missed (and wasted) opportunities as Hulkenberg temporarily faded from the paddock's consciousness—the German recently told us the switch to Sauber was the biggest regret of his F1 career—yet there is reason to believe this time will be different.

With Fernley telling Sky Sports' Pete Gill that Force India's B-spec car, developed at Toyota's wind tunnel in Cologne, Germany, will make its long-awaited debut in July's British Grand Prix, Hulkenberg should have the opportunity to follow up his Le Mans win with a number of solid, point-scoring F1 drives.

If he can maintain his Le Mans momentum and recreate his form of early 2014, when he scored points—including four top-five finishes—in the first 10 races, the 27-year-old could yet become a key figure in the driver market.

But for now, the question is not what F1 and Le Mans can do for Hulkenberg, but what Hulkenberg can do for F1 and Le Mans.


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