JUNE 15, 2015
F1 analysis deepens as Hulkenberg wins Le Mans
Full-time F1 driver Nico Hulkenberg has described winning the fabled Le Mans 24 hour race as the "best day of my career".
On debut, the 27-year-old veteran of 84 grands prix on Sunday beat the sister Porsche prototype starring former F1 driver Mark Webber.
"It's probably the best day of my career, maybe even my life," said German Hulkenberg.
"I hope to return next year," he added.
Racing full-time for Force India in 2015, Hulkenberg was already attracting a lot of attention as he embarked on the ultra-rare feat of combining F1 with a Le Mans foray this year.
"Congratulations Nico Hulkenberg," read an official F1 'tweet', "the first active F1 driver to win Le Mans for 24 years."
Actually, the victory comes at an awkward time for F1, as its popularity declines and stakeholders consider how to speed and spice up the spectacle for the future.
Now, an active F1 driver has just won Le Mans, the showpiece of the increasingly fashionable world endurance championship that also boasts manufacturers Audi and Toyota.
It had been hoped the new 'power unit' regulations would attract more manufacturers to F1, but now also Ford has announced it is returning to Le Mans next year with a GT car.
"F1 should be concerned," said the British newspaper The Times. "Only Honda showed up (in F1) while Porsche, Toyota, Nissan and now Ford have all moved into the world of endurance cars."
Indeed, Le Mans is earning a renewed reputation as a series of choice among the world's best drivers.
"You always hear 'endurance race'," Hulkenberg told f1-insider.com, "but actually it's a sprint race. We push from pitstop to pitstop more than we do in formula one."
Outspoken Australian Webber, who switched from F1 to Le Mans full-time last year, said he is relieved F1 is "finally having a look at itself" as it moves to speed up the cars for 2017.
"They need to," he told the Telegraph.
"I mainly think about the drivers, the guys who should have the opportunity to experience something phenomenal. If they're happy, and on the edge, and it's risky, pushing the boundaries, then the fans love it.
"At the moment it's not like that," said Webber.
He also told the Australian press that prototype endurance cars are "super-rewarding" to drive.
"They're bloody quick, pretty much like F1 was five or six years ago. I'm certainly not pulling my hair out saving tyres and things like that, so it's great," said Webber.
The big risk for F1 is that other drivers will now follow Hulkenberg and Webber's lead and make the switch.
"Remember," said Auto Motor und Sport correspondent Tobias Gruner, "Porsche wanted (Fernando) Alonso to race together with Hulkenberg in the third car at Le Mans. But Honda did not give permission."
And former F1 driver Lucas di Grassi, who on Sunday finished fourth at Le Mans with Audi, said the category is ready to absorb anyone else who might flee.
"It's simple," he told Brazil's Globo. "Where there are automakers investing in motor sport, you'll find the best drivers, because they pay the best wages, have the best resources and so on.
"If more (carmakers) leave F1 and come here, you would also see more top drivers doing the change too," di Grassi predicted.