Nico Hulkenberg was given only 10 minutes’ notice that Sergio Perez would be announced instead of him as a Red Bull driver next year.
The German was in the reckoning to replace Alex Albon for 2021 after putting his name in the frame with impressive performances in the Racing Point when deputising for Perez and Lance Stroll while they were sidelined due to illness. Those were Hulkenberg’s only F1 drives of 2020 having been dropped by Renault at the end of the previous season to make way for Esteban Ocon.
Although the 33-year-old former Williams, Force India and Sauber driver had reportedly been Max Verstappen’s first choice as his next team-mate, Red Bull team principal Christian Horner claimed talks had never got beyond a “brief discussion”.
However, in an interview with Motorsport-total.com, Dr Helmut Marko, Red Bull’s head of driver development, admitted Hulkenberg had only been informed just before the official confirmation of Perez’s signing that he would not be getting the job.
Reminded that Albon had been told shortly before the announcement that he was being demoted to reserve driver for 2021, Marko was asked whether Hulkenberg knew earlier that he would be passed over.
“No. I called him 10 minutes beforehand and told him that unfortunately it wouldn’t work,” said the 77-year-old Austrian.
Marko also revealed that Perez and Hulkenberg had each approached Red Bull rather than vice versa, just after the time when the Mexican was informed by Racing Point that his contract for 2021 was being ripped up and Sebastian Vettel coming in to replace him.
“Both of them asked us,” said Marko. “In autumn, at the races in Italy [Monza and Mugello in September] it got more intense.”
Ultimately, as well as Perez’s superb form throughout 2020, his recent knowledge of driving a car with a Mercedes engine swung the decision his way, according to Marko.
Red Bull are keen to tap in to what Perez has learned about the Mercedes power unit as they aim to launch a World Championship challenge next year.
“It spoke for him [Perez] that he had driven the Mercedes engine for many seasons and knew about drivability, responsiveness and all these things,” said Marko.
“’Hülki was last at Renault. The three races he drove [for Racing Point] with the Mercedes engine, you probably can’t take it because he was more busy adjusting to the car than collecting data.”