Hulkenberg's big moment

Motor sport : Force India driver in spotlight after his win at Le Mans 24 Hours

Hulkenberg's big moment

The world of Formula One, like life itself, can be cruel. Drivers come and go, their stars rise and fall, and great talents sometimes fail to get noticed.

The example of Nico Hülkenberg, a German driver at the Force India team, is a case in point. Only a couple of seasons ago, he was riding a wave of adulation and respect. There was a feeling that he was one of the best drivers in the series and was ready to move to a top team. Then circumstances and the driver market shifted, and Hülkenberg moved from one mid-grid team to another and then back again, his star seemingly eclipsed by brighter, newer ones.

Last weekend, however, something else happened, something that will put an indelible stamp on Hülkenberg’s career and could lead to renewed momentum: On Sunday, he became the first active Formula One driver in 24 years to win the world’s most famous endurance race, the 24 Hours of Le Mans in France. And he did it on his Le Mans debut, at the age of 27.

“Today is a great achievement, the greatest of my career,” Hülkenberg said after the race, which he won driving a Porsche. “It’s an amazing experience for me, coming from the F1 environment and to see a race like Le Mans.”

In fact, the unassuming Hülkenberg not only stole the spotlight from many of his more successful Formula One colleagues — he has scored one pole position, but never finished on the podium in Formula One — he also turned the clocks back to a previous era. He became the first active Formula One driver to win at Le Mans since Johnny Herbert and Bertrand Gachot in 1991.

Until the development of extreme specialisation in Formula One in recent decades, drivers had raced in as many series as they wanted. In the 1950s, Stirling Moss would race in Formula One, the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the Mille Miglia, all in the same season. In the 1960s, Jim Clark raced in Formula One, the Indianapolis 500 and the 24 Hours of Le Mans, as well as in Formula 2, a series in which he was killed during a race at Hockenheim, Germany, in 1968.

But Formula One became so professional that drivers had to sign contracts that prevented them from racing in other series. Automobile manufacturers wanted to keep the driver’s image exclusive to their brand and teams feared that drivers might be injured while racing elsewhere.

In an interview shortly before the Le Mans race, Hülkenberg said that he was able to participate in the endurance race thanks to Vijay Mallya, the owner of his Force India team.

“I think it’s more the teams than anything that wouldn’t allow the drivers,” Hülkenberg said. “And obviously this is a private team, Vijay is a big racing fan, so I’m lucky that he gave me permission. But the other teams — if you are another manufacturer, a Ferrari or Mercedes driver wouldn’t get permission to go into a Porsche. That’s just how life is.”
He added that he did not think that drivers’ attitudes had changed much since the early years.

“I think drivers would like to do something like I do now,” he said. “But what made me do it was that it was a great opportunity. You don’t get that opportunity everyday to do Le Mans with Porsche, a brand that has so much tradition and history. So I just grabbed the opportunity while it was there.”

Porsche had asked Fernando Alonso of Spain to race alongside Hülkenberg this year. But Alonso, a two-time Formula One champion, is driving at McLaren, which is powered by a Honda engine, and Honda refused to let him race at Le Mans.
Mallya’s attitude was different.

“The 24 Hours is one of the great spectacles of motorsport: It is an amazing race that demands total commitment from drivers and cars,” Mallya said. “Nico’s performance displayed his immense talent and made all of us at Sahara Force India proud. I truly hope he will be boosted by this success and translate it into another great performance in Austria.”

With no Grand Prix in Germany this year, the race in Austria this weekend is the closest thing to a home race for Hülkenberg, who was born in Emmerich am Rhein, in northwestern Germany. He began go-karting at age 10, winning two German championships, and started car racing in 2005, in Formula BMW, winning the title in his first season.

After a series of impressive performances in the lower level events, Hülkenberg moved to Formula One in 2010 and the Williams team. At the Brazilian Grand Prix he scored the team’s first pole position since 2005. Even so, Williams dropped him at the end of the season, and he spent 2011 as a test and reserve driver at Force India.

In 2012, he raced for Force India and scored 63 points, finishing 11th in the series. He moved to Sauber the following year, finishing 10th before returning to Force India last season. Before Le Mans, Hülkenberg, who had also driven in the endurance series race at Spa, said there was no comparison between that series and Formula One.

“People tend to compare it, but for me it’s comparing apples and pears — you never do that,” he said. “It’s a different game, it’s a different format of racing, both are at the pinnacle of its format and both are fun. I enjoy both.”

Seeing him in the Formula One paddock and then at Le Mans was like seeing two different people. His more reserved disposition in Formula One was replaced by broad smiles and a relaxed appearance at Le Mans.

After the Le Mans victory, which he shared with the rookie drivers Nick Tandy and Earl Bamber, he was clearly taken by the circuit in western France, which is one of the world’s most difficult to drive. It’s a throwback to another era, having changed very little over the years, unlike most Formula One circuits, which have been modified for safety reasons.

“It’s an old track, for real men,” Hülkenberg told Brazil’s Globo television in Le Mans. “You really have to pay attention.”

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