While the debate rages on surrounding the outcome of the 2021 Formula One world championship, won by Max Verstappen over Lewis Hamilton amid a controversial conclusion to the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, it is easy to forget the rest of drivers and teams.
You might think just six rounds into a 21-race season is too early for the driver merry-go-round to start turning, but speculation is never far from hand in Formula One.
Maybe it’s the Monaco Grand Prix’s traditional Friday off, allowing time for gossip, or perhaps it’s Monte Carlo’s abundance of champagne — whatever the reason, it’s not unusual for word of early contact between teams and prospective drivers to become public as European spring turns to summer.
So it’s not entirely surprising in the last seven days to read the first credible report of contact between Red Bull Racing and Nico Hulkenberg.
Italian journalist Roberto Chinchero reported post-Monaco that the four-time constructors champion has reached out to Hulkenberg to secure him as a backup option should Pierre Gasly’s form remain unconvincing.
It hasn’t taken long for the wagons to begin circling for the young Frenchman in just his second full season racing in Formula One. Promoted from Toro Rosso after Daniel Ricciardo’s shock defection to Renault — more on that later — and based on his strong performances against teammate Brendon Hartley, Gasly has been thoroughly outclassed by a Max Verstappen on a strong career upswing.
The raw numbers are concerning. With points for fastest lap excluded — Gasly has two to Verstappen’s zero, but these have perversely come as a function of his lack of competitiveness relative to his front-running contemporaries — Pierre is scoring an average of just five points a race to Max’s 13.
Expressed differently, the Dutchman is finishing 3.6 places higher than the Frenchman — particularly galling given Red Bull Racing effectively competes against only four other cars in the leading class.
But it’s Gasly’s Saturday form that’s letting him down come race day, qualifying 0.531 seconds behind Verstappen at the three races both made Q3. Comparing their Q1 or Q2 times at other grands prix — though excluding Azerbaijan, where he was effectively barred from qualifying — the gap reduces slightly to 0.431 seconds, or an average of 5.2 places back, excluding penalties.
Gasly is moving in the right direction after a particularly poor start — not unexpected given his relative inexperience and new environment — but circumstances are working against him, with Red Bull Racing suddenly finding itself as Mercedes’s nearest challenger and in need of a strong and consistent wingman to secure second in the standings.
Given Red Bull motorsport advisor Helmut Marko’s notoriously limited patience for underperformance, any further delay in Gasly demonstrating his potential could force the team to look elsewhere — or so the logic of this rumour goes.
But the talent available at feeder team Toro Rosso is unconvincing. Daniil Kvyat is driving like a man reborn in his second coming, but Marko was clearly unconvinced by the Russian last time he got his Red Bull Racing chance, while rookie Alex Albon would be prone to the same problems afflicting Gasly.
So if Marko were to move on Pierre, an external low-risk alternative would be needed.
Enter Nico Hulkenberg.
The German, extensively decorated in his junior career, debuted as one of Formula One’s most anticipated rookies in 2010, but his star has been allowed to wane. He was beaten by Sergio Perez during their time at Force India — though Perez’s reputation was unfairly tarnished by a single-year stint at McLaren — and has since become known for having entered the most races without a podium finish.
But this season Hulkenberg got himself a representative bar against which his ability will be definitively measured. With the arrival of seven-time race winner and known quantity Daniel Ricciardo at Renault, the near decade of talk will be put to the test.
“My future in the sport depends on the outcome of the duel, so of course Daniel is my first yardstick,” he said earlier this year, as per The Express.
“But I’m relaxed. I know what I can do and I know that I will give everything.”
A pure results-based analysis is difficult given Renault’s unreliability, but thus far they’ve been closely matched. Excluding Hulkenberg’s unusually poor qualifying in Azerbaijan, he’s in deficit by just 0.063 seconds on Saturdays and trails Ricciardo by only two points in the standings.
Daniel is likely to get better as he gains more experience working with the team and in the car, but the season so far has reflected well on Hulkenberg’s reputation — and given the German has demonstrated an ability to improve when motivated by quicker teammate, he too might find gains this year.
There’s no doubting that Red Bull Racing would’ve loved to have had the dependable Ricciardo in the car this season, especially now it’s become clear its rebuild with Honda is likely to be shorter than expected. But since it can’t have him, why not have the next-best thing?
It would be stingingly ironic if Ricciardo’s surprise surrender of his front-running seat were to have created the circumstances to allow his new teammate to take his place and finally have the chance to become a race winner — doubly so given the risk of his Renault punt forcing on him the same journeyman tag Hulkenberg currently wears so unwillingly.
Of course this is all highly speculative and, if the report is accurate, dependent on the unlikely outcome of Pierre Gasly failing to lift his game in this next phase of the season.
But it’s nonetheless the first fascinating movement in another Formula One silly season.