As expected, the Sahara Force India team has announced a ‘multi-year’ agreement for Nico Hülkenberg’s services for the 2014 Formula 1 season and beyond.
The 26-year-old returns to the team with whom he served as a Friday test driver in 2011 and a full-time race driver in 2012.
“I am happy to come back to Sahara Force India,” Hülkenberg said.
“The team is aiming high for next year and I believe that the experience I have gained over the years will help us achieve those goals. I genuinely believe we can have a competitive package in 2014. I’ve heard a lot of positive things about the Mercedes engine as well, so I think there is a lot to be excited about for next year.
“I know this team and I can see their determination; it’s a great bunch of people and we all share the same hunger for success.”
“I’m delighted to see Nico back with Sahara Force India,” team principal Vijay Mallya added.
“When he drove for us in 2012, it became clear Nico was an exceptional talent and he has continued to impress everyone in the paddock with his strong performances this season.
“Having Nico in our line-up is a real statement of intent and a huge boost for everyone associated with the team. We have high hopes and expectations for 2014 and by signing Nico we have put ourselves in the best position to achieve those objectives and enjoy what could be our most competitive season yet.”
Hülkenberg had been holding out for a deal to join the Lotus F1 team, but that was only going to happen if the 35% buyout by the Quantum investment consortium went through on time.
After what seemed like a million different excuses over why the deal was continually stalling, Lotus signed Pastor Maldonado instead with a $40 million-a-year dowry from his PDVSA backers, and Hülkenberg was left in the lurch – once again denied a top-flight drive because he doesn’t have massive commercial backing.
The exact details of Hülkenberg’s deal aren’t yet known, but our sources tell us that the contract involves him being advanced a considerable chunk of his 2014 salary as security. Following his departure from the team at the end of 2012, it took until mid-2013 before he was paid his entire salary. One doubts he would be silly enough to accept a repeat of the situation.
The Silverstone-based team finished sixth in this year’s Constructors’ Championship standings, having held fifth place for the first half of the season, until Pirelli’s tyre construction updates robbed it of its competitive tyre management advantage and it was overhauled by McLaren.
Nonetheless, it was an impressive achievement given its rather limited funding, and the ongoing sources of this funding will continue to remain under a cloud. Major owners Vijay Mallya and Roy Sahara have been embroiled in tax scandals and judgements over the last two years, with the latter ordered to hand over a $3.2 billion in property titles to the Indian Securities & Exchange Board as collateral for money that his company has to refund to its shareholders.
Provided this fine is not being sourced from the Formula 1 team, then its future will remain stable for at least another year.
However, the team relies heavily on its customer engine deal with Mercedes and a technical partnership with McLaren – both come at some expense – and it will need to further invest in its technical resources (facilities and personnel) if it wants to move further up the pecking order.
Mallya and Sahara’s pockets aren’t that deep, and it’s quite likely that Hülkenberg’s teammate – who the team hasn’t yet confirmed – will be bringing some cash to the table.
The incumbent Adrian Sutil brings around $10 million from his backers, the computer group Medion, but he will face serious competition from the out-of-a-drive Sergio Pérez, who will comfortably be able to outbid the German courtesy of his Mexican financial support.
Other drivers are known to have talked to the team, but it’s likely that the final choice will be between Sutil and Pérez, who will bring the right mix of speed and money to land the deal.
What is an absolute certainty is that Paul di Resta will not be racing for the team in 2014, and is likely to return to the DTM championship or cross the pond to the IndyCar Series, where he is rumoured to be angling for the Chip Ganassi Racing drive vacated by his cousin, Dario Franchitti.
Regardless, the good news is that Hülkenberg – considered by the F1 fraternity and his fellow racers to be one of the most talented drivers on the grid – will be competing in Formula 1 next year.
If Force India can deliver with a competitive package for next year’s regulations, then hopefully he’ll be able to prove the utter folly of the frontline teams’ (McLaren, Ferrari and Lotus) refusal to sign him up and give him the competitive drive he clearly deserves.