Hulkenberg’s lack of promotion emblematic of F1’s midfield struggle to advance

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It seems unfathomable that another Formula One silly season will come to pass without Nico Hulkenberg making the jump from a midfield squad to a perennial contender, but with Pastor Maldonado having been confirmed at Lotus on Friday, that appears to be the case.

Still, with three full seasons complete at three different teams –Hulkenberg has never raced for the same team in successive seasons – it does beg the question whether there is something abnormal at play.

Or, alternatively, Hulkenberg could just be the latest talented midfield driver who appears perpetually stuck there. It’s just that Ferrari, McLaren and Lotus would seem to have had their chance to secure his services in the last two years, and have gone different directions.

Hulkenberg was dumped by Williams after his rookie campaign in 2010, incidentally, for Maldonado. That led to a year’s testing with Force India before a race seat in 2012. Again, he outperformed Paul di Resta, and was thanked with a pink slip before switching laterally to Sauber for 2013. But his bridge may be burned there because of his wanting to investigate his options with other teams, and Lotus has now gone for Maldonado’s millions instead of talent. Hulkenberg has scored points in 28 of 58 career races (48.28 percent), while Maldonado is just 7/58 (12.07%).

The Williams and Lotus situations were understandable purely from a financial standpoint, but Hulkenberg’s being passed over by McLaren – twice – and Ferrari is very strange when you consider he’d be worth the long-term investment from both a points-scoring standpoint and a potential team leader standpoint.

McLaren went with Sergio Perez first, and now rookie Kevin Magnussen, for 2014. The Magnussen move makes sense because he’s a McLaren Junior driver and has excelled in his simulator work and first two F1 tests. If he progresses as quickly as the team expects, they’ll have made a wise choice. Additionally, McLaren didn’t have anywhere to place him among teams which they might share a technical partnership, so that opened the door at the iconic team itself.

Ferrari is more puzzling. No one doubt’s Kimi Raikkonen’s ability or his laconic, “don’t give a-you-know-what” attitude. What one would doubt is Ferrari investing in its future, and while Raikkonen is an excellent short-term prospect for the next two or three years, Ferrari may have missed its shot at bringing Hulkenberg in and, crucially, keeping him away from other squads that could hurt them in the future.

Ferrari though has rarely gone the “bold” route on the driver front. They’ve largely stuck by “their guys,” and it was a theory that cost them dearly when neither Luca Badoer nor Giancarlo Fisichella was able to get anything out of the car in substitute roles in 2009. Felipe Massa, for all the good he did for Ferrari, had dented confidence after the 2010 German Grand Prix fiasco and was never able to regain the consistent spark or form he showed in his first three seasons with the team.

The relative stagnation for the top teams in the driver market, though, has meant that we haven’t seen the same number of young talents rise from the midfield into a top seat. Red Bull, when given the opportunity, has promoted from within: Sebastian Vettel and now Daniel Ricciardo are Toro Rosso graduates making the leap to the “Mothership.” And Ricciardo jumped from HRT to Toro Rosso to begin with; that’s not exactly going from Sauber to Ferrari.

Other than Maldonado and Perez, you’d have to go back to Nico Rosberg, moving from Williams to Mercedes in 2010, as the last real example of a midfield driver moving up to an opportunity in a top squad. And even in that case, Williams has a historic pedigree, but isn’t what you would call a “tail-ender” of a team. Prior to that, you could argue Mark Webber going from Jaguar to Williams before 2005 was the last real “midfield to top” jump.

Consider Alonso started with Minardi in 2001. Raikkonen and Massa began with Sauber in 2001 and 2002, respectively. And that’s really it for the current grid as far as “midfield drivers advancing into top teams later in their careers.”

Lewis Hamilton? Nurtured by McLaren, now with Mercedes. Jenson Button never really raced with a “midfield team,” but did race with Benetton/Renault and BAR/Honda when they weren’t great. Romain Grosjean’s been with Lotus in two different guises. Meanwhile Red Bull has its factory of four drivers on the 2014 grid. But Hulkenberg? Di Resta? Adrian Sutil? Perez again? All resigned to the midfield, it seems.

Few would argue Hulkenberg, along with Williams’ Valtteri Bottas and Marussia’s Jules Bianchi are the “stars-in-waiting” of F1’s new generation of drivers that have already proven themselves in less than top machinery. But until they get their shot at the big teams, we can only imagine what they could do.

On the bright side, at least these drivers have made it into F1 without needing huge commercial budgets. Meanwhile drivers like Sam Bird, Robin Frijns, Luca Filippi, Davide Valsecchi, Fabio Leimer and Luiz Razia appear to have had their F1 chance pass them by.

Coyne transitioning from underdog to Indy 500 threat

Photo: IndyCar
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For most of the team’s existence, Dale Coyne Racing has been the Chicago Cubs of American Open Wheel Racing – a team whose history was more defined by failures, at times comically so, than success.

The last decade, however, has seen the tide completely change. In 2007, they scored three podium finishes with Bruno Junqueira. In 2009, they won at Watkins Glen with the late Justin Wilson.

The combination won again at Texas Motor Speedway in 2012, and finished sixth in the 2013 Verizon IndyCar Series championship. That same year, Mike Conway took a shock win for them in Race 1 at the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit.

Carlos Huertas scored an upset win for them in Race 1 at the Houston double-header in 2014, and while 2015 and 2016 yielded no wins, Tristan Vautier and Conor Daly gave them several strong runs – Vautier’s best finish was fourth in Race 2 at Detroit, while Daly finished second in Race 1 at Detroit, finished fourth at Watkins Glen, and scored a trio of sixth-place finishes at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course, Race 2 at Detroit, and the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

And 2017 was set to possibly be the best year the team has ever had. Sebastien Bourdais gave the team a popular win in the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, and then rookie Ed Jones scored back-to-back top tens – 10th and sixth – at St. Pete and the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach to start his career.

But, things started unraveling at the Indianapolis 500. Bourdais appeared set to be in the Fast Nine Pole Shootout during his first qualifying run – both of his first two laps were above 231 mph –  before his horrifying crash in Turn 2.

While Jones qualified an impressive 11th and finished an even more impressive third, results for the rest of the season became hard to come by – Jones only scored two more Top 10s, with a best result of seventh at Road America.

But, retooled for 2018, the Coyne team is a legitimate threat at the 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500.

Bourdais, whose No. 18 Honda features new sponsorship from SealMaster and now ownership partners in Jimmy Vasser and James “Sulli” Sullivan, has a win already, again at St. Pete, and sits third in the championship.

And Bourdais may also be Honda’s best hope, given that he was the fastest Honda in qualifying – he’ll start fifth behind Ed Carpenter, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power, and Josef Newgarden.

“I think it speaks volumes about their work, their passion and their dedication to this program, Dale (Coyne), Jimmy (Vasser) and Sulli (James Sullivan) and everybody from top to bottom. I can’t thank them enough for the opportunity, for the support,” Bourdais said of the team’s effort.

Rookie Zachary Claman De Melo has been progressing nicely, and his Month of May has been very solid – he finished 12th at the INDYCAR Grand Prix on the IMS Road Course and qualified a strong 13th for the “500.”

“It’s been surreal to be here as rookie. I’m a bit at a loss for words,” Claman De Melo revealed after qualifying. “The fans, driving around this place, being with the team, everything is amazing. I have a great engineer, a great group of experienced mechanics at Dale Coyne Racing.”

While Conor Daly and Pippa Mann struggled in one-off entries, with Mann getting bumped out of the field in Saturday qualifying, Daly’s entry essentially puts three Coyne cars in the race – Daly’s No. 17 United States Air Force Honda is a Dale Coyne car that has been leased to Thom Burns Racing.

Rest assured, the days of Coyne being an “also ran” are long gone, and a Coyne car ending up in Victory Lane at the biggest race of the year would complete the Chicago Cubs analogy – the Cubs won a World Series title in 2016, and an Indy 500 triumph would be the crowning achievement in Coyne’s career.

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