Every so often these midfield-encased aces, unable to demonstrate their ability at the top of F1, are lured to Le Mans in June, intent on having a crack at the world’s most famous race – in this small French town (population 140,000) in the Pays de la Loire region. Seeking glory.
The latest of these is Force India driver Nico Hulkenberg, who forms part of the factory Porsche team’s stellar 2015 Le Mans line-up. The German has watched opportunities for advancement into top F1 machinery evaporate at least twice before his eyes in recent years, and as his Porsche team-mate for the weekend Mark Webber says: “He deserves the chance in F1 to have a top seat but there are not that many around.”
This weekend, Hulkenberg joins Porsche Cup graduates Earl Bamber and Nick Tandy in a third 919 Hybrid LMP1 prototype.
Hulkenberg’s approach to racing can seem unemotional, outwardly at least. This unflappable air is borne from a practical thought process. He breaks down tasks, simplifies them and executes. Sir Jackie Stewart (another ex-Le Mans racer) calls this mind-management. But in the hurly burly build-up to the multi-manufacturer 2015 carnival of Le Mans, this serves Nico well.
“Why should I say anything, then build up expectations and then put myself in that situation,” he says during one of several distracting ‘Meet the Team’ press encounters ahead of the race. “There are so many situations that could go wrong in the 24 hours that we then have to manage those, so there is no guarantee.
“You just have to keep cool, do your job, keep it on the black stuff, hopefully have no technical issues and see where we end up.”
In the build-up to Le Mans, Hulkenberg’s been the centre of attention, the first contemporary F1 driver since Sébastien Bourdais in 2009 to race here. He’s been asked endless comparison questions between a sport that some believe is suffering something of a PR crisis right now, and one that has all the signs of booming.
“Le Mans and F1 are two different pairs of shoes for me and I don’t tend to compare,” he says. “Both are at the pinnacle of motor racing and of course, like with everything in life, you have the chance and opportunity to improve things. But I’m a driver, I’m hired to drive a race car fast and it’s not my job to think about these things too much.”
Interest in his (temporary) transition extends beyond the media and Hulkenberg admits his regular classmates are fascinated by his weekend sojourn: “A lot of the drivers were quite curious to know what it feels like. There is definitely an awareness and an interest from F1 people.
“When I signed up for here, I knew what to expect. I know it’s different. I didn’t expect to find the same things as in F1. Mentally you accept it, you go with the flow. You adapt to new circumstances and requirements.”
Asked what he’s enjoying the most about Le Mans and Hulkenberg expresses surprise at his own conclusion. “The traffic,” he says. In an LMP1 he’s often braking 150 metres later than some of the amateur GT drivers, and this is new territory.
“I didn’t know about it until before Spa [his warm-up race with Porsche last month], but it adds a little bit of extra excitement. It’s an extra job you have to take care of and you can be better or worse at it.
“Maybe to a certain degree experience counts, but it is also a natural thing.