The popular German had been a mainstay on the Formula 1 grid, occupying a seat between 2012 and 2020. Missing out on a 2020 spot seemed harsh, but with a flurry of positive substitute appearances for Racing Point, a future seat surely beckons.
Hulkenberg has been dubbed ‘the super-sub’ of F1 after glowing performances under very short notice at both Silverstone and the Nurburgring.
After a well-documented morning coffee in Cologne just hours before Qualifying, Hulkenberg faced a late call-up and the mountainous task of hopping into an F1 car with no practice whatsoever and competing against the world's greatest drivers once again.
“It was even wilder and crazier than last time!” Hulkenberg told Sky F1, with the German expecting to arrive at the track later in the weekend as a pundit rather than a driver.
Having started at the rear of the field, he stormed to eighth position in Germany in what should be described as one of the greatest drives of the season, one that was recognised by fans after he clinched a deserved Driver of the Day.
Remarkably, after starting just two races this season in extremely difficult circumstances, the German has already equalled the number of top-eight finishes that Sebastian Vettel has attained all season in his Ferrari with just a seven-point split between the pair in the drivers’ standings.
What could have been...
Hulkenberg has been unfortunate in his F1 career not to be picked up by a top team after years and years of consistent results.
It was revealed this summer that he was even second choice to Lewis Hamilton for a Mercedes drive in 2013, but with that move failing to materialise no top team has yet taken a punt on his proven abilities.
A permanent return to the sport feels almost inevitable for Hulkenberg, but there are only a limited number of vacant seats for 2021 and he is faced with some fierce competition.
Potential moves include Red Bull and Haas, with Alfa Romeo a possibility but are more likely to opt for a youthful setup, as Mick Schumacher looks to emulate his father in reaching the pinnacle of motorsport after impressing in Formula 2.
Red Bull seat still undecided
Alex Albon, despite achieving his first podium in Monza this season, will be looking over his shoulder after recent comments from Helmut Marko has cast further doubt over his future.
The indications are that bar a drastic late turnaround in the remaining races this term, Red Bull could replace yet another academy driver after Pierre Gasly’s axe last season, with Hulkenberg and Sergio Perez keenly waiting in the wings.
"We can call the names that are available on the market," Helmut Marko told German Sport1. "This is Hulkenberg and this is Perez. The question is how far away they would be from Max?
"We have comparisons with [Daniel] Ricciardo and we can draw conclusions about where the drivers stand. I don't think that anyone would get closer than three tenths.
"On good days, Albon is also able to create this proximity to Max. Albon is young, but we are aware that if he can't stand the pressure, we can't afford to be standing on one leg when it comes to the world championship.”
Max Verstappen has been the lone Red Bull up front all season and with no second car able to apply some form of pressure on the Mercedes drivers, and having fought two against one the entire season, the Dutchman is well and truly carrying the team on his back with Albon yet to stamp any authority on his side of the garage.
Albon, Gasly, Perez or Hulkenberg?
Whilst a move for the former occupant of Albon’s seat in Gasly would look rather awkward despite the Frenchman clinching a superb first win in Italy, there is no doubting that he has grown since his Red Bull nightmare and he could be a candidate for that seat if and when it becomes available.
Hulkenberg could have further competition in the form of Perez who himself is very unfortunate to be without a seat, with the incoming Vettel looking to re-establish himself at a fresh new team.
Red Bull are yet to find stability in the second seat since Daniel Ricciardo’s departure to Renault in 2019. Ricciardo left the team to partner one Nico Hulkenberg, a pairing that looked to be one of the strongest on the grid with the duo boasting lots of ability and consistency.
Consistency is the key for Red Bull, and with Albon failing to find his feet, Hulkenberg’s consistent nature could tempt Christian Horner and Red Bull to make a move.