Why Hulkenberg’s latest F1 comeback is his most challenging yet

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The Aston Martin reserve driver has been called in to deputise for his fellow German Sebastian Vettel.

The former world champion had returned to his home in Switzerland after last weekend’s running at Sakhir, and took a PCR test before he travelled back to Bahrain as part of Aston Martin’s regular COVID protocols. When the result proved to be positive he had to call the team with the bad news.

Although Hulkenberg usually travels to flyaway races to be ready on standby, he wasn’t actually scheduled to be in Bahrain.

However, a flight was hurriedly arranged and he is due to arrive shortly after midnight on Thursday. That means he won’t get to the track for a final seat-fitting and engineering meetings until Friday morning.

Vettel, meanwhile, did take part in those meetings remotely today, so he’s staying up to speed with what’s going on at the track.

Hulkenberg twice stepped in for the team in its Racing Point days in 2020, substituting for Sergio Perez at the two Silverstone races, and for Lance Stroll at the Eifel GP at the Nurburgring later in the season.

However, his task is harder this time as he has no experience of the 2022 cars and Pirelli’s 18-inch tyres, apart from some simulator running.

He also went through last season without making an F1 start, so he’s a little rustier than he was back in 2020.

“Nico has driven the car in the simulator over the last year and even at the start of this year,” Aston Martin performance director Tom McCullough tells Motorsport.com.

“So he has at least some experience of the car. He obviously knows the team well, but it’s going to be a steep learning curve having never actually driven the real car.

“It’s matter of going through with him all that we learned during winter testing, to try to put him on the front foot, and put together a programme that gives him the laps and the ability to get up to speed with the AMR22.”

Nico Hulkenberg, Racing Point RP20 Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

The team has had to change its original Friday run plan because Hulkenberg has to learn so many different aspects of the car.

“Obviously Seb had done through all the winter testing and was fully up to speed with the car,” says McCullough. “Our priorities are going to shift slightly.

“Having actually been through this process with Nico at Silverstone and Nurburgring a couple years ago, it’s just literally going back through what we did there, what we thought was good about what we did, what we could have done better, and just trying to put together a plan.

“It’s windy, it’s by rain, a lot to learn. But the bottom line is about having a good race car here.

“Qualifying isn’t as important, it’s a track where you can overtake, and there is tyre degradation. So that’s going to be our focus of just trying to, from the get go, get him totally focused on being able to do a race in our car.”

Hulkenberg raced to the team in its previous Force India guise in 2012 and 2014-’16 before his ‘supersub’ return with Racing Point for the three races in 2020. He’s thus the perfect man to step in at the last minute.

“At Nurburgring he jumped in before qualifying,” says McCullough. “And then he went on to score us some very valuable points. He knows the team, he knows the engineers, a lot of us are still the same engineers. And that helps communication.

“These things are so complicated nowadays, even things like the steering wheel, he’s obviously used that in the simulator.

“The way we talk, every team has a different language for doing the same job, whether it’s the start sequence, starting the car, whether it’s how you look after the tyres in the long run, all that stuff and at least he knows the people, he knows us all. But it’s not going to be straightforward. It’s going to be a challenge for us all.”

Although he won’t arrive at the track until Friday morning his homework started before he left Europe.

Nico Hulkenberg, Reserve Driver, Aston Martin Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

“We spoke to him before he got on the plane,” says McCullough. “We’ve sent him the relevant documentation to get reading, the pre-event stuff. We keep in touch with him. I spoke to him after the test here in Bahrain. So he’s a bit in the loop, he’s not totally out of it.

“But for sure, there’s so much information nowadays, the cars are so different, and there are sporting regulation changes, so there’s so much going on. Our job is to get the order one basic stuff into him, and not confuse him with all the thousands of other things you can talk about. Because getting the basics right is the job.”

The team is hoping that there will still be enough time in the morning to do jobs such as getting Hulkenberg comfortable in the car while avoiding having to break the FIA curfew by starting work early.

“Our aim is not to do that,” says McCullough. “Our aim is to get everything done straight after curfew, check the seat fit, go through all the bits and bobs. There’s still plenty of time still to go. So let’s see, we’ll know more in a few hours.

“We’ve seat fitted him back at the factory, but we’ll have to do another one when he first gets here, just to check all the bits.”

Aston Martin sporting director Andy Stevenson confirms that the curfew shouldn’t be an issue, but the team may have to miss the FIA’s new ‘show and tell’ session, when the cars are displayed in the pitlane for the media on Friday.

“Our plan isn’t to break the curfew,” says Stevenson. “But we have requested to be excused from the car display with one car.

“Which was the very reason it was allowed in those regulations, if anybody has a reason for force majeure, and I think this is a pretty good one, you don’t have to be put it on display. To be fair, though, our plan is we probably will get it on display, it just won’t be the whole period.

“It’s far from ideal at this stage of the season, because we’re still all learning about these cars, and we’ve got a lot of work to do. So it’s not ideal, but it’s manageable.

“And we’ve done some work with Nico anyway, so he has been in the sim already. He has got a race suit, he’s done a mock-up seat fit, albeit not in the real car. So we’ve got all that to do.”

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