Nico Hulkenberg made the switch from Force India to Renault for 2017, a move into a factory team that many felt was long overdue. Renault had an atrocious 2016, but this season has seen the RS17 show great pace in the hands of the Hulk, and for that, he deserves a lot of credit.
You would be forgiven for thinking ‘The Hulk’ was mad for leaving Force India. Renault scored just three times in 21 races last year, scoring just 8 points across the entire season on their way to 9th in the standings. Force India meanwhile had secured a remarkable 4th place in the championship overall thanks to the efforts of Hulkenberg and teammate Sergio Perez. So on paper and current form, leaving Force India was a big risk. But Renault had taken over the former Lotus team late on in 2015 and had therefore ran what was effectively a B-Spec Lotus E23, the teams 2015 car. That was always going to compromise aero development and their season as a whole. The engine showed great progress in the hands of Red Bull who took a pole position and two wins and regularly gave Mercedes something to worry about. With a higher budget, promises of future title success and a good team at Enstone, it was enough to lure Hulkenberg away. And so far, despite the team being behind Force India in the overall standings, he has put in some great performances for his new team.
“In the years to come, Renault will play a challenger role, which fits my approach to racing 100%. I can’t wait to become part of the family.”
Nico Hulkenberg, upon signing for Renault in 2016
The first race of the year saw Hulkenberg qualify 12th and finish 11th, narrowly missing out on points for the team. The fact he had easily got into Q2 showed some progress compared to where the team were in 2016. In China he got the car into Q3 and lined up 7th on the grid, a surprise to many and confirmation of potential over a single lap. It was the first time the Enstone based team had been in Q3 since the 2015 Russian Grand Prix with Romain Grosjean. The race didn’t go as well, two penalties for misdemeanours under the safety car relegated him to a 12th place finish, but he had shown what he and the Renault were capable of. He finally broke his points duck in Bahrain, 7th on the grid translating into a 9th place finish. The following race in Russia saw him qualify 8th and finish there as well, another solid job for the team and proof that the difficulty in overtaking might benefit the drivers who can show up on a Saturday. Race pace had been lacking in Bahrain, but a successful post race test there helped the team out for Russia. Indeed, Force India were “impressed” by the Renault’s pace, even if the results don’t fully represent the teams current speed.
“I have to say the car performed very well, it was switching on, almost, during that first stint with track improvement. I was able to go faster and faster and faster for many laps.”
Nico Hulkenberg, after the Russian Grand Prix
Hulkenberg has not just shown speed in the team however, he has become the clear team leader. He has out qualified and outraced teammate Jolyon Palmer at every event so far and will probably do so for a while. Palmer is not at Hulk’s level, but he is certainly no slouch, his title success in GP2 shows that. He should be able to join his teammate in the points battle, but he hasn’t so far, which will be a slight concern to the Renault team. Hulkenberg is leading the charge for Renault and is perhaps over-driving the car. Maybe not by much, but those extra few tenths a driver can bring all add up and it is showing. He has actually humiliated Palmer. Renault are now rocking up to each venue with a great chance of scoring points and it is all down to Hulkenberg being able to extract the maximum from himself and his car. Force India may be ahead right now, but Renault are on their way to catching up and in the long run, they have a driver that’s more than capable of holding his own against the best.