Formula 1

Nico Hulkenberg offering mixed messages over F1 future

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Nico Hulkenberg is adamant he can still become a star in Formula 1 as he starts preparations ahead of two WEC appearances in 2015.

The German, currently at Force India, has long been considered a future star in the sport but with a lack of powerful backing has found his path to the top fall short and even his mere future under threat.

Indeed on Tuesday, Hulkenberg completed a day's testing in the Porsche 919 at Motorland Aragon in Spain ahead of outings at Spa Francorchamps and the Le Mans 24 Hours in 2015.

It could be foolish to suggest his decision to give endurance racing a try next year signals an intention to leave F1, at least for now, but it does come at an interesting time in the movement of drivers between three very different series.

Drivers making their name elsewhere

Sebastien Buemi was the first to make the move switching to Toyota in the WEC after he was ousted by Toro Rosso in 2011 (although he did remain as Red Bull reserve in the three years since) but Mark Webber was the highest profile driver to make the move joining the returning Porsche in the same series for 2014.

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The former Red Bull man had become disenchanted with the style of modern F1 with DRS and degrading tyres and has continued to be vocal in his opposition to the current show urging Jenson Button to make the move amid his ongoing uncertainty with McLaren.

Then a number of drivers who failed to maintain a foothold in the pinnacle of motorsport moved to the new Formula E championship with Jean-Eric Vergne becoming the latest as he will drive for the Andretti team at this weekend's ePrix in Uruguay.

"Every driver wants to be in a top car and drive for wins and championships"

Hulkenberg still eager for F1 success

For Hulkenberg, however, the foray into the WEC is just meant to be about grasping an opportunity with Porsche fielding a third car at the two high profile events, indeed speaking to Autosport he insisted fulfilling the high expectations most have of him in Formula 1 remains his primary focus.

"Every driver wants to be in a top car and drive for wins and championships," said the former Williams and Sauber driver. "It is no different with me.

"So from that point of view, you are impatient and you want to get there. For me it is frustrating not to have it yet at this second - but that is how life is, that is racing.

"But I will keep working hard here and I am sure one day the opportunity will come."

So close and yet so far

At the end of 2013, Hulkenberg was reportedly very close to finally achieving his goal and reaching a top team in F1 as he was just a signature away from replacing Felipe Massa at Ferrari as well as being lined up to replace the man who eventually went to the Italian team, Kimi Raikkonen at Lotus.

As it turned out both options would have ended in disappointment as Ferrari again struggled to achieve what most had expected while Lotus went from being the biggest challengers to Red Bull at the end of last year to near backmarkers in 2014.

A return to Force India actually seemed one of the best of his career as the Silverstone-based team enjoyed plenty of success scoring good points early on, however, a lack of development and an improvement by their main rivals McLaren saw them eventually settle for sixth in the Constructors' championship.

A positive Force India outlook 

In Austin, Hulkenberg was confirmed for another year and he was positive that the team will continue to improve and be able to maintain a stronger challenge next season.

"We have slipped. We didn't work good enough or efficient enough but I think if we can do that, if we can be better there and bring the updates as we wanted, then I can see us getting stronger again," he said.

He also believes much of Force India's dip can be put down to the non-Mercedes-powered teams who gradually started closing the gap in terms of engine performance to the German carmaker throughout the year.

"At the beginning of the season the Mercedes advantage was quite large, and it has shrunk a lot already," he explained.

"The others have caught up quite a bit, but as far as our performance goes, we have to do a really good job and do all the right things to put ourselves back up to where we were at the start of the season."

Future options

As mentioned, for Hulkenberg much of his F1 career can be described as a very quick driver who just couldn't catch a break, while he is sure he will make it to the top eventually the main question some have is 'where?'.

With Sebastian Vettel now at Ferrari and the probability of one of Maranello's young drivers stepping up to eventually replace Kimi Raikkonen one door that seemed to be open could have now closed.

The same could be said of McLaren who also look set to turn to their own stable of drivers whether it be Kevin Magnussen who remains or Stoffel Vandoorne who eventually steps up.

A return to Williams could not be ruled out, however, with Valtteri Bottas already proving himself to be a potential future champion it could come down to whether he could replace Felipe Massa when the Brazilian's time is up.

The most likely option could be Mercedes, while Nico Rosberg is signed up for three years and Lewis Hamilton also in talks over an extension to his current contract, should the disharmony that emerged this year resurface in the future it could leave a way in for a driver like Hulkenberg to force his way in.

Missing his chance at career peak

Another issue is increasing competition with the number of young drivers improving and impressing year by year and Hulkenberg himself is not exactly getting any younger himself.

At 27, that kind of age is now seen as the prime of someone's career and so when top teams start looking for the future or longer term, perhaps he is reaching the end of the time when he can be considered one for the future.

Forever a nearly man?

There remains no doubts over Nico Hulkenberg's potential in F1 but whether he will ever be the man a top team will turn to when looking for a new driver remains to be seen. The WEC experiment is also further indication that perhaps there could be an acceptance that fulfilling the dream in F1 may not happen and that perhaps the best option for himself is to look elsewhere.

Whatever happens in the future whether it be in F1 or the WEC, Hulkenberg will likely always be remembered as the driver who time after time but his name in the hat but in perhaps the peak of his career was never drawn out.

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