Why Hulkenberg says his latest return is unlike previous ‘Hulkenbacks’ · RaceFans

Nico Hulkenberg has revealed the last two months have been “very intense” for him as he has prepared for his full-time Formula 1 return.

The new Haas driver’s last full season of racing came in 2019. Since then he’s been called up as a substitute on five occasions, each time with the team now known as Aston Martin. Hulkenberg entered three grands prix for Racing Point in 2020 and another two for Aston Martin at the start of last year.

When Hulkenberg joined Haas for post-season testing at the end of 2022 he admitted feeling “a bit of human degradation” from the physical challenge of being back in an F1 car.

He described his return to the cockpit last week as “good fun” after his first day in the Haas VF-23 in Bahrain. “Doing 51 laps was quality work, I would say. A bit less than we wanted to do, but like I said: quality laps. It’s about starting somewhere and then learn as you go, learn about the car, doing changes, see how the car reacts.”

Hulkenberg made two appearances for Aston Martin last year

While during his years of part-time action he had to remain race-ready as a reserve driver, Hulkenberg had a tight timeframe to get in shape this year due to participating in pre-season testing, and so did not get the extra month of training that he was afforded in 2022.

“I’ve spent two months pretty much in the gym entirely, and then running and everything. I’ve obviously had time to prep for this this time, so different compared to other ‘Hulkenbacks’. It’s a different nature. I feel good.”

“I’ve had two very intense months in terms of preparation,” explained the 35-year-old. “I’ve invested a lot of time, energy and sweat into this. But I felt today that it was worth it, I’m ready, my body’s strong, and that is exactly what I need and wanted.”

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After winning the GP2 (now Formula 2) title as a rookie in 2009, Hulkenberg impressed on his first season with Williams, claiming a memorable pole position at a damp Interlagos. But he already knew by that point in his debut season he would not still be racing for the team next year, as the well-heeled Pastor Maldonado took his seat.

Start, Silverstone, 2020
‘Super-sub’ Silverstone 2020 return saw him start third

Hulkenberg returned in 2012, but after eight years in F1 it seemed his full-time career was over when Renault dispensed with his services. It’s clear the desire to get back to racing still burns strongly ahead of a season in which he should record his 200th career start.

“I’m happy that I’ve used the winter time very well, and now happy that it’s finally starting,” said Hulkenberg. “The theory can stop, and the practical part takes over and it’s nice to drive out there again. Leave the garage, release the pit limiter and feel the F1 acceleration and forces again. That was very enjoyable and fun.”

In addition to being in “first-class physical shape” in the Haas VF-23 thanks to his off-season work, Hulkenberg said he also quickly built up a level of comfort with the handling demands of the car.

“As a driver, you’re looking for that good and healthy connection with the car and find a good harmony. And that’s what we started.”

He described himself as “pretty pleased” with his first impression of the VF-23. “More than anything, for me personally how I feel in the car [is positive]. The feeling and the harmony I get already at this early stage with the car.

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Nico Hulkenberg, Haas, Bahrain International Circuit, 2023 pre-season test
Hulkenberg feels like he’s clicked with new Haas VF-23

“So that’s worth a lot for me because that’s the foundation that I build on for the rest of the season going from here. So far, so good.”

While this weekend will provide the first real indication of how well Hulkenberg has adapted to his new team, the early signs are encouraging, as Haas team principal Guenther Steiner acknowledged.

“What impressed me, how he got in the car yesterday morning and was very comfortable with it very quick,” he said of Hulkenberg.

“He got straight on to it, did his job, it seemed to be like he was here already since a year. I’m not exaggerating – I was quite impressed by that.”

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