When Wiliams driver Nico Hulkenberg took pole at this year’s Brazilian grand prix, Williams team co-owner Patrick Head was asked if the rookie driver’s performance at Interlagos would secure his seat during the coming season. Head was cagey. While he admitted that Hulkenberg deserved to remain in Formula 1, he refused to concede that the Hulk deserved to stay at Williams.
One might have dismissed this as a standard evasive answer in advance of an official announcement. But many in the paddock to it for what it was, an admission that the rookie Williams driver was on his way out. Yesterday the team confirmed what had been expected. Hulkenberg has been released for the coming season. While Hulkenberg has shown a steep learning curve through much of the season, having initially been significantly outperformed by his vastly more experienced team mate, Rubens Barrichello, in the end, one has to view the Williams decision as being more a reflection of their own financial difficulties rather than of Hulkenberg’s performance.
Current rumors suggest that Hulkenberg will be replaced by 2010 GP2 champion, Pastor Maldonado, who has substantial financial backing from the state-owned Venezuelan oil company PDVSA. Williams has lost four sponsors for the coming season, so it only stands to reason that they’ll be looking for loose change wherever they can find it. Maldonado does have some legitimate credentials, and no doubt his Venezuelan petro-dollars make them look even more appealing.
Once Williams decided to opt for pay-to-play driver, Hulkenberg’s ouster was assured. It would have been foolhardy for them to eject Barrichello to make room for Maldonado. That would have left them with a raw rookie, and a driver with a mere single year of F1 experience under his belt. With that kind of driver pairing, Frank Williams might just as well think about launching his own GP2 team.
Barrichello was the obvious choice in terms driver retention. Not only has he been a steady performer, but he has nearly 20 years of F1 technical experience, so he’ll be a valuable baseline for the team in more ways than one.
And whither go Nico Hulkenberg? Fresh rumors from the paddock suggest that a seat at Force India might open up in his favor. Tonio Liuzzi of that team has indicated he already has a contract in place with Force India for next year, so if there’s any substance to the rumor, that would point to Adrian Sutil as the man to be on his way out.
Would Force India really replace one young German for another? Would they really enjoy a significant performance gain? Both Hulkenberg and Sutil have had their ups and downs this year, and it would be difficult to point to one as having a significant edge over the other in terms of performance, even though Sutil is more experienced. So what would Force India hope to gain?
Another option might be Renault. The team have been on the fence about retaining their number two, Vitaly Petrov, for another year, and it’s already been rumored that Nick Heidfeld, who replace Sauber’s Pedro de la Rosa for the last few races this year, might be in line to take Petrov’s seat. But Pertov brings a handsome amount of rubles to the table, or so it’s been reported, so this would seem to put Renault in a similar position to that of Williams. In other words, they’re apt to choose money over talent, in the end. And for that matter, although Petrov crashes more than Hulkenberg, the German hasn’t really demonstrated that he would be an outright step up in terms of raw pace.
After Williams and Renault, the choices drop off sharply. Hulkenberg’s manager, Willi Weber (also manager to the likes of Michael Schumacher), has stated confidently that he’ll find a slot for Hulkenberg somewhere. Just where, remains to be seen.