SAO PAULO, Nov 25 (Reuters) - A year ago, Nico Hulkenberg seized an astonishing pole position at the Brazilian Grand Prix only to find it was not enough to keep him in a job at Williams.
Interlagos provided the highlight of the tall German’s rookie season in Formula One but now, by his own admission, he finds himself in a happier place as the 2011 championship comes to an end.
“Yes,” he told Reuters in an interview after taking part in Friday’s first practice as Force India reserve driver and clocking the eighth best time.
”I feel good...even though I wasn’t racing (this year) I was still able to learn some bits and maybe progress in different ways as well.
“It’s very important for me to go out there and perform like I did. And obviously it’s good for my self-confidence to still prove to myself that I am able to do the job, which is very important for a racing driver.”
Hulkenberg has not raced since the 2010 season-ender in Abu Dhabi but whereas last year he arrived in Brazil with his future clouded by uncertainty, this time he is strongly tipped for a race seat in 2012.
Force India have yet to make any announcement but the word on the paddock grapevine is that Hulkenberg looks sure to partner Britain’s Paul di Resta at the expense of his own compatriot Adrian Sutil.
“When I came to the track yesterday all the memories came back up, great emotions and feelings I was going through with the team at that moment,” said Hulkenberg, whose pole was struggling Williams’ first for five years.
“Now it’s business as normal again. That was last year, this is a different year and you start all over again.”
Even if Hulkenberg was unable to convert the pole into a victory, with the youngster finishing eighth, his achievement was enough of a statement to keep him in the paddock if not on the starting grid.
“I think it was fundamental because people then realised that, hang on, this is normally not a car that you put on pole position,” he said.
“Obviously the conditions made it possible, at that time the car performed quite well and I pulled a mega lap which I couldn’t have done better and obviously that is what big teams and names want to see. That’s the way you impress them.”
Hulkenberg scored a respectable 22 points in 2010, 17 more than former champions Williams have managed in their worst ever season this year, but had to hand over his seat to Venezuelan Pastor Maldonado.
Maldonado won the GP2 support series last year but, perhaps more significantly, brought with him much needed funding from his country’s state oil company PDVSA. Hulkenberg, the 2009 GP2 champion, had few options.
“There were cockpits available but they were also taken by drivers with a bit of financial support and obviously that broke my neck for this year,” he said.
“But now I have survived that year, it’s the last grand prix and I‘m looking ahead and not backwards.”
Maldonado has scored just one point in 18 races so far, but his place at Williams is not seen in any danger with veteran Brazilian team mate Rubens Barrichello now going through something of what Hulkenberg experienced.
The German has moved on but he still feels the frustration of being sidelined for reasons other than his talent.
“It is pretty sad bearing in mind that this is the pinnacle of motor racing and the best drivers in the world are supposed to race here and some of them clearly, you see them perform well but also without the money they wouldn’t be here,” he said.
“That’s how it is. When the world is not so healthy financially things like that happen in sports which are very expensive.”
His role as reserve driver, despite regular outings in practice for Force India, has also been frustrating even if he has made the most of it .
“Initially I had to learn how to deal with it and how to adapt,” he said.
”It’s tough when you are there on Sunday and you know that last year you were going through your preparations, the warm-up with the physio and going to the car and having your rhythm.
“And now it’s just watching the telly and having coffee and doing bits and bobs for German TV. It’s not satisfying,” continued the 24-year-old.
"It's been a pretty tough year, maybe the toughest of my career, but hopefully I will fight back even stronger." (Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by...; For Reuters sports blog Left Field go to: blogs.reuters.com/sport)