The latest and most surprising twist of what is proving to be an unpredictable 2020 Formula 1 season has seen Nico Hulkenberg land himself an unlikely chance to return to the grid.

The German was left out in the cold after losing his Renault F1 seat to Esteban Ocon at the end of the 2019 season, and despite seemingly having little hope of gaining a seat for next year, he has received a call up to make a shock comeback to the sport. 

After it was revealed Sergio Perez had become F1’s first driver to test positive for COVID-19, Racing Point was left scrambling to find a suitable replacement to fill the Mexican’s seat for this weekend’s British Grand Prix.

Here’s the story of how Hulkenberg’s out-of-the-blue return to the F1 grid was pulled off…

Racing Point approaches Hulkenberg 

Racing Point found out Perez tested positive at 2.20pm on Thursday, and it was quickly decided that Hulkenberg was the right man for the job.

Racing Point team principal Otmar Szafnauer wasted no time in calling Hulkenberg, who was in Germany. His original itinerary for this weekend included a punditry outing for RTL, followed by a trip to the Nurburgring to test a GT4 car in preparation for his upcoming ADAC GT Masters outing at the circuit on 15-16 August.

Knowing this was an opportunity he could not waste, Hulkenberg jumped on a plane headed for the UK and landed in Birmingham airport shortly after 7pm. From there, he travelled straight to the team’s Silverstone base to undergo a seat fit which was not concluded until 2am.

“He had just landed in Germany,” said Szafnauer. “I think he was flying to Germany to do some kind of sports car test or something. I don’t know what category of racing.

“But he landed there and said ‘I just landed here, I’m going to do a test’. And I said ‘well, maybe you should jump in a Formula 1 car’. So he said ‘yeah, absolutely’.

“I think he spent an hour on the ground in Cologne to grab his boots and a helmet. I think the helmet he grabbed isn’t to spec anyway. And then he flew into Birmingham so he landed here about 7, 7:30 last night.”

Following what little sleep he could get, Hulkenberg was then up bright and early to conduct an hour’s practice on Racing Point’s simulator before undergoing his second mandatory COVID-19 test on Friday morning.

The all-important negative result of that test was not verified until just 15 minutes before opening practice was due to begin at Silverstone.

Once he got the green light following an anxious wait at the factory, Hulkenberg ran through the Silverstone paddock and jumped into the cockpit of his already-prepared RP20 with just moments to spare before the session got underway.

Such was the rush of the situation, Hulkenberg even had to wear teammate one of Lance Stroll’s spare race suits on Friday. With Stroll just 2cm shorter than Hulkenberg, the German was able to squeeze in.

Despite the lack of preparation, Hulkenberg was strapped into the cockpit of a foreign car and set a lap time good enough for ninth, just six-tenths slower than Stroll’s effort for P3. Further improvements came in FP2 as he wound up seventh-quickest.

“We got the ‘go’ from Eurofins at quarter to 11 saying that his test came back negative,” Szafnauer  continued. “Then we had to quickly get him in the car.

“He quickly came up to speed and his feedback was as it always is. So there’s more improvement in the car, there’s things he doesn’t like, there’s things he does like.”

After getting his first F1 action in over five months, Hulkenberg reflected on a “crazy and wild” 24 hour period.

"The last 24 hours have been a bit special - crazy and wild," Hulkenberg explained.

"At 4:30pm yesterday afternoon I got the call, got the plane here, seat fitted until 2am tonight, 8am this morning into the simulator for an hour, bit of prep work. So it was a short night, but all worthwhile.

"A great effort by the team, I want to thank the team also, the night shift guys have done a great job to fit me in the car and even quite comfortably, and the FIA for turning it around so fast on the superlicence. It's been very special."

Why Hulkenberg was the perfect supersub 

Racing Point does not have an official reserve driver this season but struck an agreement to share Mercedes’ reserves Esteban Gutierrez and Stoffel Vandoorne.

Vandoorne was out of the running straight away due to his clashing Formula E commitments at the upcoming season finale in Berlin.

Racing Point did also make contact with Gutierrez, though the Mexican’s most recent grand prix race outing had come at the end of 2016 with Haas.

After consideration and debate within the team, Racing Point decided there were multiple reasons as to why Hulkenberg was the best option available.

“He’s not our reserve driver so I started thinking about this when Checo’s first test was inconclusive and hoping that the next step was negative,” Szafnauer said.

“You’ve got to hope for the best and plan for the worst, so we started that planning. We did it in parallel with Hulkenberg and Esteban Gutierrez at the same time.

“We also have Stoffel Vandoorne, but he couldn’t be here this weekend as he’s got a Formula E commitment, so it was Esteban or Nico.

“We thought Nico would be more appropriate as he knows us really well.  He knows all the engineers, he knows our system and our processes. He’s driven our simulator, it would be easy for him to get in the simulator again, and also he has relevant experience from having driven in F1 last year.

“We just needed somebody who could score points for us so we thought Nico would be the best guy for us.”

Mercedes junior and current Williams driver George Russell had been mooted by some as a possible candidate given his links to Force India in the past, although he was never truly in the frame given his contractual situation.

The reason Hulkenberg has only been confirmed for the British GP

On Thursday, the UK government changed its stance on the self-isolation period for those testing positive for coronavirus, increasing the quarantine period from seven days up to 10.

Effectively, that also rules Perez out of next weekend’s 70th Anniversary GP too, but curiously, Hulkenberg was only confirmed to be driving for Racing Point at the first Silverstone race.

Szafnauer pointed out that it is not a clear-cut situation due to a number of “hurdles” relating to the quarantine restrictions.

Asked to explain the reason behind its announcement, Szafnauer replied: “If it is certain he is out for two then Nico will drive at both races but the reason for it is there is a bit of uncertainty.

“We’re still not sure if it is 7 or 10 days, he tested positive on Wednesday, and I believe – but not 100% sure – that on Wednesday the restriction set by England was seven days of quarantine, not 10.

“If it is 10 days then Nico will drive both, if it is seven days it is only one of the hurdles… The other hurdle is he’s got to have a negative test as well, so if it is still in his system and tests positive then Nico will be driving again in the second Silverstone race.”

The most realistic outcome is that Hulkenberg will fill in for both of the Silverstone rounds at least. Participation in next month’s Spanish Grand Prix in Barcelona cannot be ruled out, either. 

Could Hulkenberg finally land an ‘ironic’ F1 podium? 

Not only has Hulkenberg landed a second chance saloon in F1, he also has what is arguably the most competitive car he has ever driven underneath him in the shape of Racing Point’s hotly-debated and controversial RP20 design.

Hulkenberg was on the pace quickly and with another 60-minute practice session under his belt on Saturday morning, he should be in a position to at least get himself into Q3.

Meanwhile, Stroll carried over his impressive form from Hungary and continued to demonstrate the team’s impressive pace as he set the third-fastest time in FP1, before recording the benchmark pace in FP2 with the fastest time of the day.  

And Hulkenberg was immediately aware of the car’s lightning-quick potential.

“You can see the huge potential, the car is massively fast," he said.

"I didn't exploit the soft tyre that well, I think I have a bit more in the bag, and need to use that tyre better.

"But that's what we're going to work on obviously through the night, and try to get the best possible from this weekend."

Might it be enough to finally enable Hulkenberg to achieve a long-awaited first F1 podium at the 178th attempt? With a smooth weekend and a small slice of good fortune, there is no doubting the Racing Point is a podium-contender.

Asked if he believes Hulkenberg stands a chance of claiming a maiden podium, Szafnauer replied: “I think he does - wouldn’t that be the ironies of all ironies.”

Podium or no podium, a strong performance would serve as a timely reminder that Hulkenberg remains a top-level F1 driver and deserves a full-time race seat in 2021.

 

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