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Opinion

Where Hulkenberg’s wrong-righting Audi F1 move leaves the driver market

OPINION: Formula 1’s 2025 driver market has twisted again with the news that Nico Hulkenberg will swap Haas for Audi next year. That has implications for both established drivers and a pair looking to break through from Formula 2, but also rights a wrong for Hulkenberg. Here’s how

Nico Hulkenberg, Haas F1 Team

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

The name will be the same. 12 years after he left, Nico Hulkenberg is heading back to the Sauber Formula 1 team in 2025. Yet his circumstances are much changed and so are the team’s - and the championship overall from the final days of the V8 engine era.

As the Audi rebrand looms, this is the shot Hulkenberg felt he’d previously been unjustly denied in F1. And it’s one he’s absolutely earned.

Hulkenberg’s move from Haas to Sauber for 2025 has been a while in the making. Only last September, he was openly coveting this exact transfer – recognising that Audi had wanted a German driver when it first formally announced its F1 entry a year earlier.

The manufacturer has also been agitating in the 2025 driver market so turbocharged early by Lewis Hamilton’s decision to join Ferrari.

This has stirred another famous agitator in the sphere, Red Bull’s motorsport advisor and driver career kingmaker, Helmut Marko. But Audi – via Sauber team representative Alessandro Alunni Bravi – has deliberately positioned itself as “a player in the market” and not a spectator.

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It wants its 2026 driver line-up sorted early and has made its offers to reflect that position. Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz reportedly has a lucrative offer to formalise mutual long-term interest in the project, while Hulkenberg has matched Audi’s early intentions in signing sooner.

Given Audi’s status and motorsport pedigree, this is a remarkable career turned around for the driver who in 2021 had been adrift since the year before and sampling IndyCar – a venture he ended up not comfortable in pursuing – in between COVID-19 replacement drives for the Racing Point/Aston Martin squad.

Hulkenberg on the grid at the Chinese Grand Prix

Hulkenberg on the grid at the Chinese Grand Prix

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

The Audi move provides Hulkenberg the shot he thought he’d been denied.

Back in 2013, Hulkenberg’s previous F1 season with Sauber featured several stunning performances in Ferrari-powered machinery where his drives at Monza, Korea, Suzuka and Austin were the highlights. In Korea, he thrillingly kept Fernando Alonso and Hamilton at bay.

Then, his 2010 Brazil rookie pole for Williams and his frontrunning drive for Force India at the same track two years later were still fresh memories. In 2013 he was therefore repeatedly linked with a subsequent move to Ferrari and joining Sauber was seen as preparation for such a change.

But it never came – at the Scuderia or elsewhere. The change to the V6 turbo hybrids placed a new premium on driver weight and Hulkenberg, at 6ft, felt this went against him.

Audi, helmed by Andreas Seidl, who led the crack Porsche LMP1 squad where Hulkenberg won the 2015 Le Mans 24 Hours on debut in 2015, knows what it’s getting

"I've never had an answer where [teams] said, 'Sorry, no – we turned you down because you're too tall'," Hulkenberg said in an interview with select media including Autosport at the 2023 Belgian Grand Prix.

"Probably they wouldn't tell me straight to my face. But I'm pretty sure that it has, yeah, hindered the odd opportunity and occasion to jump to a top car. Packaging issues, less space, more weight [were the reasons cited], which is not the right way around in this business."

He was speaking in the smaller, comparatively spartan Haas motorhome that soaking day at Spa.

The German returns to Sauber having raced for the team back in 2013

The German returns to Sauber having raced for the team back in 2013

Photo by: Charles Coates / Motorsport Images

The American squad and its then-team principal Guenther Steiner gave Hulkenberg an F1 revitalisation in 2023. Haas needed a more reliable driver than the crash-prone Mick Schumacher and Hulkenberg had badgered Steiner with calls and even data presentations about what he still had to offer as a racer.

He delivered swiftly. His seventh place at the Australian GP, which might’ve been a podium had the stewards’ ruled differently over the chaotic ending of that event, convinced Steiner to activate the option in Hulkenberg’s initial 1+1 contract for 2024. This was even before he really regularly starred in qualifying last year, before inevitably slipping back amid the VF-23’s massive in-race tyre wear problem.

That good form has continued this year – with Hulkenberg leading team-mate Kevin Magnussen 2-0 in Q3 appearances from the opening five rounds and by four points to one in the drivers’ standings.

Audi, helmed by Andreas Seidl, who led the crack Porsche LMP1 squad where Hulkenberg won the 2015 Le Mans 24 Hours on debut in 2015, knows what it’s getting. The odd rash error still remains along the lines of shunting with Hamilton at Interlagos 2012 – think his Qatar GP start gaffe – but overall Hulkenberg feels he’s the same driver he was when his Renault stint ended in 2019. He just feels much fitter these days.

At 38 in August next year, there will be some who say this call is blocking a seat for an up-and-coming young racer.

But the reality is that it actually makes it easier for Haas to now sign Ollie Bearman for 2024. It’s understood the team would like to do this if Bearman can keep up the impressive performances he showed in Jeddah in his six 2024 F1 FP1 appearances and the remaining Formula 2 rounds this year.

The other young driver tipped for a 2025 F1 promotion – Andrea Kimi Antonelli – was never a Sauber/Audi contender given his Mercedes ties.

Then there is how Hulkenberg is delivering the type of results a hotshot such as George Russell was securing at the back of the grid for Williams in 2019-2021 – so it’s not as if fans are missing out on that front.

The driver market moves have opened up a chance for Oliver Bearman to make the step into F1

The driver market moves have opened up a chance for Oliver Bearman to make the step into F1

Photo by: Sam Bloxham / Motorsport Images

Of course, people like change. But the lack of F2-F1 promotion in the last two years reflects both the comparative weakness of recent junior category fields and that F1 teams just don’t make the more emotion-drenched decisions outsiders may desire.

Hulkenberg’s experience is obvious to Audi. It says it wants him to be “closely involved in the development of Audi’s first F1 car for 2026” – via the Sauber press release announcing his signing.

This development does make things harder for two existing F1 drivers: Valtteri Bottas and Zhou Guanyu. It has been becoming clearer that the Swiss-based team wants an all-new line-up for the Audi's first F1 season, given the choices Hulkenberg has already made and on which Sainz is now deliberating.

The Hulkenberg-to-Audi move does complicate the driver market picture

If Sainz does get the chance he desires elsewhere on the grid – most likely from Red Bull given the competitiveness and contract length it could offer, even if it's unwilling to hand out as high a salary for Sainz as Audi – Sauber has a handy fallback in either incumbent.

Zhou has the appeal to the Chinese market where Audi is keen to sell more road cars. This, in theory, would leave Bottas looking to extend his F1 career at Alpine or return to Williams.

Here, the Hulkenberg-to-Audi move does complicate the picture because it has been suggested to Autosport that Williams could be a rookie starting spot for Antonelli. That makes it more likely all parties around these potential deals may now wait longer to see where the pieces fall, even if others drop elsewhere.

Results-wise, both Bottas and Zhou have overall been underwhelming these past two years. That reflects more on the 10-time grand prix winner who could command a significant salary when joining from Mercedes for 2022 and may yet be a candidate to replace Magnussen at Haas, but also more on Sauber’s current place in the F1 pecking order.

Audi will aim to hit the ground running as a 'big' F1 team in 2026

Audi will aim to hit the ground running as a 'big' F1 team in 2026

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

This heaps pressure on Audi and its engine project from 2026.

Its OEM status, 13 Le Mans wins, two World Rally crowns, the 2017-2018 FE teams title and 2024 Dakar Rally successes mean it must be considered a ‘big’ F1 team. That’s even though its current iteration is trapped in the bottom five pack that struggles to score regular points.

Sauber has also endured pitstop humiliation this season and two instances of its upgraded front wings coming apart without drivers striking them against other cars or walls (for Zhou in Australia qualifying and while overtaking Kevin Magnussen last time out in China).

However, given both these aspects were implemented as a drive to improve performance, the intentions are pleasingly positive.

Audi now needs to provide overall class-leading equipment, but also provide the time and resources to get its engineering might into position to succeed in F1. This can take a long time, as Mercedes discovered when it bought a title-winning entry in Brawn in 2009 and as Toyota never found out half a decade earlier.

The German marque had pretty instant success at Le Mans and in FE, where it ultimately pulled out surprisingly fast. It may not be able to replicate this in F1, but the rewards, if enough patience and resources are provided around the right driving talent, are much greater overall this time around.

Can Hulkenberg help Audi's development at the start of its F1 journey?

Can Hulkenberg help Audi's development at the start of its F1 journey?

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

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