SILVERSTONE, England — Nico Hulkenberg made an unexpected return Friday to Formula One, replacing Sergio Perez after the Racing Point driver tested positive for the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) ahead of the British Grand Prix on Sunday.
Hulkenberg, 32, lost his seat at Renault for this season so was available when Racing Point team principal Otmar Szafnauer made the call.
Just in time.
“One, we had to find him, and then we had to get him to England, then we needed a super licence and then we needed a negative virus test,” Szafnauer said. “So a lot of things had to happen, and it came together with about 15 minutes to go.”
— BWT Racing Point F1 Team (@RacingPointF1) July 31, 2020
The German was immediately back in action for the first time since November, finishing ninth in first practice on Friday at Silverstone, where no fans are attending because of the pandemic restrictions.
In the second practice, Hulkenberg improved to seventh in a session that was led by his Racing Point teammate, Lance Stroll.
After finishing fourth two weeks ago at the Hungarian GP, Stroll was 0.09 seconds ahead of Red Bull driver Alexander Albon (who later crashed). Valtteri Bottas was third for Mercedes, ahead of Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc and Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton.
Hulkenberg said he got the call to be at Silverstone while he was on his way to the Nurburgring for another racing project.
“That was less than 24 hours ago, so it feels a bit surreal for me right now, but I like a good challenge, and this is certainly one,” Hulkenberg said. “It’s obviously a difficult situation for Racing Point and Checo. He’s a buddy of mine, an old teammate, and I wish him a speedy recovery. I’ll step in and try do the best I can for the team.”
— Nico Hülkenberg (@HulkHulkenberg) July 31, 2020
It will be Hulkenberg’s 178th Grand Prix.
“Having to find a replacement for Sergio at short notice is no easy task,” Szafnauer said, “but in Nico we’ve got a fantastic supersub who the team knows very well. He’s certainly being thrown in at the deep end, but he’s a fast learner and I’m sure he will get up to speed quickly.”
Perez believes he picked up the virus on a trip home to Mexico between the Hungarian and British races to visit his mother after she had an accident.
He tested positive Thursday for COVID-19 and has to go into isolation that also should rule him out of next week’s race at Silverstone.
“I’m extremely sad – definitely one of the saddest days in my career,” Perez said. “The amount of preparation we put into this weekend to be 100% ready, I knew I had a great car underneath me, that the team had done a fantastic job.”
Reporting no symptoms of the virus, Perez said it was a reminder how vulnerable everyone is to becoming infected.
“After Hungary I took a private plane to Mexico to see my mum for two days because she had a big accident. So as soon as she left hospital I was able to see her,” he said. “Then I came back to Europe, same way, with all the protocols in place. And I just got it, I don’t know from where.”