Anthony French commented on the post, Button, Alonso, Magnussen: Who should McLaren run? 9 months, 3 weeks ago
It’s an absolute no-brainer from a statistics point of view: Button and Alonso.
In football you wouldn’t start a striker with an inferior record on the basis that he ‘might’ be better in 2 or 3 years time. I […]
“I can say that the boy has an unbelievable talent. So much about him already reminds me of Michael Schumacher.” Willi Weber’s 2007 endorsement of Nico Hulkenberg, who he was managing at the time, says everything you need to know about one of Germany’s brightest young talents.
The country which already has one multiple champion in Sebastian Vettel and current points leader Nico Rosberg could one day have another in the shape of Nico Hulkenberg. His junior career demonstrated he has the ability to continue the current domination of Formula One by German drivers.
Hulkenberg was born in August 1987, and first got behind the wheel of a kart ten years later. The German karting scene enjoyed a boom period in the late nineties thanks to the many youngsters inspired by the success of Schumacher.
Despite the abundance of competitors, Hulkenberg made his mark by winning the German Junior Karting Championship in 2002, aged 15. the following year he clinched the German karting Championship, a category he again excelled in in 2004 before moving into single-seater racing.
Vettel had dominated Germany’s Formula BMW championship in 2004, but the next year Hulkenberg distinguished himself by winning the title at his first attempt – despite a controversial end to the season.
Driving for the Josef Kaufmann team, a well-respected organisation that had previously helped a young Gerhard Berger on the road to F1, Hulkenberg was immediately on the pace. He won eight rounds outright and was top rookie in all bar four of that year’s races.
One of the few races where he failed to score points was at the Norising, where in race one he knocked team mate Nick de Bruijn into a spin on lap two:
The pair shared the front row for the second race, but it was Hulkenberg who won from pole, claiming his seventh win of the year.
The title was decided in controversial fashion. Sebastien Buemi was declared champion after the final double-header event at Hockenheim, but under protest as Hulkenberg had been given a 30-second penalty for illegally passing Buemi during a Safety Car restart.
However on appeal a 60-second penalty was imposed on Buemi, whom it was ruled had braked hard before the restart, causing Hulkenberg to pass him. Losing the win cost Buemi the championship to his rival. “In the end justice won out,” said Hulkenberg. “Buemi’s manoeuvre endangered all the cars behind him. Now I can enjoy my title.”
More controversy soon followed, however, at BMW’s World Final event. Held for the first time at the Bahrain International Circuit and featuring Formula BMW drivers from around the world, this time it was Hulkenberg who won on the road but was penalised for a Safety Car infringement. He therefore fell to third behind Buemi and overall winner Marco Holzer – who also earned a coveted F1 test.
A measured step up in 2006 saw the young German move into German F3, rather than the more prestigious European series. It was to be a relatively disappointing year, with Hulkenberg winning just once before a mid-season chassis change dropped him from championship contention and saw him end the year fifth.
His next move was an unusual one. A1 Grand Prix, the ‘World Cup of Motorsport’ for drivers in single-spec chassis, was entering its second season. Hulkenberg was enlisted to drive Germany’s entry for the majority of the 2006-07 championship, and set about rejuvenating his somewhat-battered reputation by dominating A1GP.
Hulkenberg won the first feature race of the year at Zandvoort, but his next race at Brno came to a swift end following this tangle with title rival Jonny Reid of New Zealand:
After that Hulkenberg got into his stride, and at Sepang romped to a dominant 42-second win during a rain storm. By the end of the year he’d racked up nine victories and almost single-handedly took Germany to the crown. Michael Schumacher appeared in person to hand the 19-year-old his title.
Hulkenberg’s A1 Grand Prix success did not deflect him from an otherwise conventional path towards F1. For 2007 he moved up to the F3 Euro Series and took his first win at the Norisring in fine style having started 18th. It made up for his disappointment in the other of that weekend’s races when he spun off while battling Romain Grosjean:
Two further wins followed for Hulkenberg later that year, notably at Zandvoort where he again distinguished himself in very wet conditions. He ended the year third in the championship, behind Grosjean and Buemi and in front of another future F1 driver, Kamui Kobayashi.
Grosjean had become the fourth driver in a row to win the title for ASM, following the likes of Lewis Hamilton, Paul di Resta and Jamie Green. Hulkenberg extended the run in 2008, after the team was rebranded as ART.
He dominated the season, winning seven of the season’s ten feature races and claiming 76 of his eventual 85 points in the Saturday races. It helped matters that a stewards’ decision to strip him of victory in Zandvoort, where his car was found to be underweight, was overturned on appeal.
The 21-year-old claimed the title at Le Mans during the penultimate race weekend of the year. After another win at the final round in Hockenheim he had almost twice the points of second-placed Edoardo Mortara:
By now Hulkenberg was also dovetailing his F3 programme with a new role as a Williams F1 test driver. He made his next step up the ladder with ART and into another now-defunct winter series – GP2 Asia.
Although he contested just four of the eleven rounds, one win and three other top-four placings saw Hulkenberg take 6th in the championship, sandwiched by fellow future F1 drivers Vitaly Petrov and Sergio Perez, both of which had entered every race. He also got the chance to renew his rivalry with Kobayashi in Bahrain:
Williams demonstrated their faith in Hulkenberg by choosing him to conduct the shakedown test of their new FW30 chassis at the beginning of 2009. But his main occupation that year was the main GP2 championship with ART.
Hulkenberg had a shaky start to the season with a no-score at the opening race weekend in Spain. Grosjean and Petrov to open up a points gap by the time the field arrived at the Nurburgring for the halfway point of the championship.
But when he reached home ground Hulkenberg was revitalised, winning both races. The second of these, from eighth on the grid on a damp track, was another showcase for his superb touch in low grip conditions:
Hulkenberg added a third consecutive victory in the first race at the Hungaroring a week later. He added another win at Valencia, and a further boost to his title hopes came when Grosjean left the series to make an early entry into F1 with Renault.
That meant Hulkenberg arrived at the penultimate race weekend at Monza poised to add the GP2 championship to his increasingly impressive CV. Third place duly sealed the title, and as well as being the first rookie champion since Hamilton he also made history by becoming the first driver to clinch the title before the final race weekend of the season.
Williams now had every reason to consider promoting him for 2010. During the winter they parted ways with engine supplier Toyota, meaning a new driver could be found to take the place of Kazuki Nakajima, who owed his place in the team to their backing.
Rubens Barrichello was already confirmed in place of the departing Nico Rosberg, leaving the door open for Hulkenberg to make the step up to the race team. Although his Williams association ultimately only lasted on season, it was the break that gave him the chance he had craved to show his skills in Formula One.
Route to F1
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Images © BMW, A1 Grand Prix, GP2/LAT, Williams/LAT
One year before Kimi Raikkonen astonished the F1 paddock by arriving in the sport with only 23 race starts to his name, another driver made headlines for gaining a rapid promotion to the sport’s top flight.
<a title="Jenson Button" […]
Formula One was a minority sport in Spain when Fernando Alonso was born in July 1981.
Alonso would eventually follow in Villeneuve’s footsteps and drive for the Scuderia – and unlikely prospect for a youngster from a country where F1 was greeted with indifference at best.
But Jose Luis Alonso had been bitten by the karting bug, and his son first was just three years old when he first got behind the wheel of a go-kart.
The only Spanish driver ever to stand on the podium at a world championship event had been Alfonso de Portago, who shared second place at Silverstone with Peter Collins in 1956. Alonso had taken the first steps towards matching that achievement – and outstripping it.
1984-1998 – Karts
By 1993 Alonso, now 11, had begun to attract the attention of sponsors to support his increasingly hard-pressed family. That allowed him to take his fledgling career to the big time. A triple crown in the Spanish Junior Championships followed, and by 1996 Alonso was the benchmark for others to test themselves against.
That season saw others outside Spain sit up and take notice when Alonso took not only his fourth consecutive Spanish crown but the world championship as well, a feat he mirrored with the Spanish and Italian titles a season later when he moved up to the senior Intercontinental-A category (now KF2).
Alonso showed his class with a dominant performance at a gruelling Intercontinental-A European Championship event at Genk in Belgium in 1997. From a field of 162 runners he won every one of his eight heats.
Grip levels on the hot track ramped up rapidly due to the fact it was in near-constant use, but Alonso continued to control proceedings with another win in the pre-final. Here he is in the unfamiliar combination of a white and blue helmet in kart number 82:
However four laps into the final he made his first mistake of the weekend. Alonso dropped a wheel off the track, spun at speed and went up onto two wheels. Fortunately his kart landed the right way up but he was unable to resume. Victory went to Italian rival Alessandro Balzan:
1999 – Euro Open Nissan
Alonso was runner-up in the 1998 world championship and claimed the Spanish title again. Then former F1 driver-turned Formula 3000 team boss Adrian Campos to give the youngster a trial run at the Albacete circuit in Spain.
He acquitted himself excellently, proving promising enough for Campos to risk entering him for the 1999 Euro Open Movistar by Nissan championship. This championship was eventually taken over by Renault and now exists as Formula Renault 3.5, the series Kevin Magnussen won last year.
Six victories, including a double at Donington Park in front of watching F1 personalities, netted him the title. He clinched the crown at Valencia, passing Manuel Gaio early in the race then getting ahead of Tomas Scheckter (son of Villeneuve’s former team mate and 1979 world champion Jody Scheckter) thanks to the mid-race pit stops.
Here’s Alonso winning the championship at Valencia driving the number two car and now using the same helmet design he had when he arrived in F1 two years later:
That triumph earned him a test for Minardi, who Campos had raced for in Formula One. Alonso impressed the team’s sporting director Cesare Fiorio, who had previously worked for Alonso’s future employer Ferrari.
“The first thing I did was to call [Minardi boss] Gabriele Rumi to draw up a ten-year contract for him before word got round F1 about Fernando and someone stole him from us,” said Campos.
2000 – Formula 3000
Formula 3000 beckoned and in 2000 Alonso joined future F1 rivals Mark Webber, Sebastian Bourdais and Justin Wilson on the grand prix support circuit.
But 2000 was to prove a difficult year. The language barrier with his mostly Belgian colleagues at Team Astromega only began to improve late in the season as Alonso developed his command of English.
There were flashes of potential early in the year. At Silverstone – driving a full-blooded racing car in the wet for the first time – he qualified sixth, only to be excluded after his car failed scrutineering when a pair of engine mounting studs were found to exceed the maximum allowed diameter by less than two-tenths of a millimetre.
More misfortune awaited him at the Nurburgring where he made a superb start from 20th on the grid, only to land on top of Ricardo Mauricio amid carnage at the first corner. Alonso is in the yellow Astromega number seven:
Alonso’s progress was swift: on his first visit to Monaco he set fastest lap on his way to eighth place. He was a battling second in Hungary, hounding race winner (and eventual champion) Bruno Junqueira to the flag.
His form had peaked just as the season reached its end. But he signed off with a superb breakthrough victory at Spa Francorchamps.
Up against a field of generally more experienced drivers in equal cars, on a real driver’s track where he had not raced before, the teenager dominated proceedings. Alonso took pole position, fastest lap and led every lap of the way.
After 30 laps he won by 15 seconds – and it could have been more. His fastest lap was over a second quicker than anyone else’s:
Just two years after graduating from karts, Alonso was already being courted by F1 teams. Ferrari, who he eventually joined ten years later, were interested, but they were not as invested in young driver development as they are today.
While they hesitated, Benetton team principal Flavio Briatore. “Ferrari told us to wait, but then Briatore walked through the door with a contract under his arm,” explained Campos.
2001 – Formula One
Managed by Briatore and very much on Minardi’s radar after the successful 1999 test, Alonso stepped up to F1 for 2001. Formula One still wasn’t being broadcast live in Spain, so his parents followed his progress on Italian network RAI.
He again showed great improvement throughout the season. Although Minardi were going to be in the hunt for points, by the end of the year Alonso was humbling other drivers with better equipment.
It was at another great driver’s track – Suzuka – that Alonso gave a startling demonstration of his capabilities at the end of the year. He brought his car home 11th ahead of Heinz-Harald Frentzen’s Prost, the BAR of Olivier Panis and both the Arrows drivers.
Briatore knew he had a star on his hands. In the days before in-season testing was banned Briatore decided Alonso’s time would be better spent testing for Renault throughout 2002 in preparation for a return to the top flight with them the following year.
It also meant no more participating in Minardi team principal Paul Stoddart’s PR exercises, such as this unusual staged ‘race’ for two-seater F1 cars at Donington Park. Alonso was surprised to find himself assaulted from behind by 1992 world champion Nigel Mansell at the last corner:
In 2003 Alonso moved into a Renault race seat alongside the experienced Jarno Trulli. At his second race for the team in Malaysia he qualified on pole position, the youngest driver ever to do so at the time. A new F1 star was born.
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Images © Renault/LAT, Boris 1964
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