Nico Hulkenberg is back in a Formula 1 car for the first time since December 2019 in the wake of Sergio Perez’s positive test for Covid-19. MotorsportWeek.com takes a look at what has happened in the build-up to the British Grand Prix.
Nico Hulkenberg didn’t want to miss out on the 2020 Formula 1 season but circumstances conspired against him.
Renault opted not to renew his contract. Discussions with Haas were unsuccessful. Alfa Romeo’s door, co-partnered by Ferrari, remained closed.
Rather than chase a full-time seat in another category, or even a Formula 1 reserve role, Hulkenberg stepped off the hamster wheel for the first time since he was a child, visited the carnival in Brazil (pre-coronavirus!), and also spent time in the USA and Majorca. For the opening rounds he joined all bar 20 people in watching a Formula 1 race on TV and then turned his hand to punditry, making appearances on F1TV and more prominently German TV station RTL. He was due to reprise that role this weekend, following a test at the Nurburgring, in anticipation of his one-off appearance in the ADAC GT Masters round next month.
Then on Thursday afternoon he received a call from Racing Point team boss Otmar Szafnauer…
Given the number of people involved in Formula 1 – and its support categories – a positive Covid-19 result from a prominent figure was inevitable at some stage.
Since the Australian Grand Prix debacle the FIA, Formula 1 and relevant authorities have worked hard to put stringent measures in place but the championship is not immune to the coronavirus.
Sergio Perez delivered an inconclusive test result and his second test confirmed that he was Covid-19 positive.
Perez travelled back to his native Mexico after the Hungarian Grand Prix in order to visit his family, in particular his mother, who he revealed had suffered a “big accident”, and had only just been released from hospital. He was only in Mexico briefly and did not travel commercially on any leg of the journey.
First and foremost Perez’s health is the most important aspect, and everyone wishes him a speedy and full recovery.
“He was surprised he tested positive, he couldn’t believe it,” said Szafnauer on the situation.
“He travelled privately, took precautions, didn’t get on a commercial flight in between so he was surprised, we will check him out daily, send a doctor to him, he’s quarantining now.”
During the lockdown period the prospect of a driver missing an event after returning a Covid-19 positive was raised.
With confirmation that grands prix would not be canned in the event of a positive test teams therefore needed standbys at the ready.
Racing Point, as with McLaren, was able to call upon Mercedes reserve drivers Stoffel Vandoorne and Esteban Gutierrez.
Vandoorne last raced in Formula 1 for McLaren in 2018 while Gutierrez’s most recent outing came for Haas in the 2016 finale.
Vandoorne was present at the opening rounds but has been gearing up for his Formula E commitments with Mercedes in Berlin next weekend and is not available at Silverstone.
It left Racing Point with a choice between just two drivers.
“I started thinking about this when Checo’s first test was inconclusive,” said Racing Point boss Otmar Szafnauer on the situation.
“I was hoping that the next step was a negative [result for Checo] but you have to hope for the best and plan for the worst.
“We did it in parallel with Nico and Esteban, Stoffel couldn’t be here this weekend as he has a Formula E commitment, so it was Esteban or Nico.
“Our engineering team, after we discussed it, thought Nico would be more appropriate as he knows us really well, he knows all the engineers, he knows our systems, our processes, he’s driven our simulator, it would be easy for him to get in the simulator again. And also he has relevant experience from having driven in F1 last year.
“We just needed somebody who could score points for us so we thought Nico would be the best guy for us.”
While Gutierrez drove up from London – where he is based – Hulkenberg headed over to the UK from Germany, with his boots and helmet, landing in Birmingham at 19:00, before travelling to Racing Point’s factory. Conveniently the drama unfolded at Silverstone, for Racing Point’s factory is located on the other side of the roundabout to the circuit’s main entrance. There Hulkenberg could carry out a seat fit, get up to speed with procedures, and spend some time in the simulator. It was a very long night, with little sleep, for all involved parties. A contract and Super Licence paperwork also had to be wrapped up.
Even the rapid Covid-19 tests take time and, after what is understood to be a procedural setback, he was only given clearance to enter the paddock 15 minutes before the start of FP1. Hulkenberg sprinted down to his team area, got into a set of Lance Stroll’s overalls – handily the Canadian is also on the tall side – and bolted on his black helmet (with Racing Point’s sponsors applied) so that he could strap into the RP20. Hulkenberg completed 23 laps in FP1, finishing ninth, as he linked up with the team he departed at the end of 2016.
Racing Point has so far confirmed Hulkenberg for only this weekend but that is pending both clarification on the UK government’s guidelines and also Perez returning a negative test.
Those who test positive for Covid-19 must self-isolate for 10 days – but the altered practice was only introduced on Thursday and was an increase from the previous seven-day period.
Racing Point is in the process of clarifying whether Perez’s inconclusive test, understood to have taken place on Wednesday, will count as positive, and therefore whether he only has to abide by the previous guidelines.
“If it is certain he is out for two then Nico will drive at both races,” confirmed Szafnauer.
“But the reason for it is there is a bit of uncertainty, and we’re still not sure if it is seven or 10 days.
“Checo tested positive on Wednesday, and I believe – but I’m not 100 per cent sure – that on Wednesday the restriction set by England was seven days of quarantine, not 10, so I’m still not sure.
“If it 10 days then Nico will drive both, if it seven days it is only one of the hurdles – the other hurdle is he’s got to have a negative test as well so if it is still in his system and tests positive then Nico will be driving again in the second Silverstone race.”