There are some sports in which being called the greatest midfielder of a generation would be high praise. Nico Hulkenberg can claim that mantle - but in Formula 1 it's nothing to get excited about.
The German was recently re-confirmed as a Force India driver for 2015. But, despite being rated as one of the most talented men on the grid, we are unlikely to see Nico get any closer to the front of the field next year. The performance deficit between the manufacturer teams and their midfield rivals is expected to grow as the financial gulf between them widens. That means another year of giving his all to finish in the lower half of the top-10, or perhaps picking up a top-five if attrition is high at the front. These sorts of results aren’t worthy of Hulkenberg’s talents.
It has long been felt that the German belongs in a top team. Last year his manager revealed that Hulkenberg was offered a contract by Ferrari, only to find out by text message a few days later that the drive would instead go to Kimi Raikkonen. The Finn has gone on to struggle badly this term, and there may be a few in Maranello who regret hitting 'send'.
But Ferrari went for the name - and this is the crux of Hulkenberg’s problem. When vacancies at top teams open up, they are either offered to members of that outfit’s young driver programme, or to an established star. As such Nico was overlooked for the 2014 McLaren seat in favour of their protege, Kevin Magnussen, while he never had a shot at driving for Red Bull next year because they had Daniil Kvyat waiting in the wings.
At Ferrari he was passed over for Kimi 12 months ago, while the Scuderia are now set to take another big name in Sebastian Vettel. He could also have been a contender for next year’s McLaren seat, but the team are poised to hire Fernando Alonso - yet another established star - rather than gamble on Nico's potential and hunger.
Hulkenberg has gone well beyond the days of joining a young driver programme. What’s more, as he continues to wait in the midfield, he has little chance of ever becoming an established star. At 27 he is already edging towards veteran status; if a few more seasons pass by without the big break arriving, Hulkenberg will be another thirty-something F1 driver moving towards a career in the DTM or sportscars. That description makes him sound rather like Adrian Sutil.
But for many years, Hulkenberg was considered far more similar to Vettel. The two Germans were born just over a month apart and both came to prominence by winning their native Formula BMW title (Seb in 2004, Nico in 2005). What’s more, both were being talked about as stars of the future long before making the grand prix debuts.
But that is where the similarities end. Today Vettel is a four-time world champion known across the globe, while Hulkenberg is yet to even stand on the podium - something Seb has done 66 times.
Before he re-signed with Force India, there were rumours that Hulkenberg had been offered a chance to join Porsche in the World Endurance Championship. How long will it be before he accepts that sort of chance? Perhaps 2015 is too early, but three years down the line he would have every right to chase a shot at Le Mans glory over yet another season in F1’s poverty-stricken midfield.
He may not even have the choice. The financial inequity in modern F1 means that midfield teams like Force India are becoming increasingly reliant on funded drivers. Nico brings no money for his seat, relying instead on his own talent and team bosses’ faith. If the sport continues down its current path, there may no longer be a place for him.
That would be a terrible shame. Depending on who you ask, Nico is anything from a race winner to a multiple champion in waiting. His pole lap for Williams in Brazil four years ago, the manner in which he dragged Sauber towards the front in 2013, and his metronomic consistency during the first half of this season all suggest a driver more than capable of mixing it with F1’s big boys. All he needs is a car worthy of his talents.
However, with each passing year, it becomes increasingly unlikely that Nico Hulkenberg will ever get the chance to fight at the sharp end of an F1 grid.