Is this finally Nico Hulkenberg’s moment? And what’s wrong with Sebastian Vettel?

Given that Sunday’s 70th Anniversary Grand Prix — the name of the second event at Silverstone in two weeks — is all about marking F1’s history, it would be a fitting place for one of its most unenviable records to finally be broken.

Barring unforeseen circumstances, the fight at the front is likely to be between the two Mercedes drivers, but the battle to join them on the podium has taken on an entirely different complexion…

Incredible Hulk

Nico Hulkenberg was in the top three on Saturday afternoon. Will he still be there when the cars park up at parc ferme on Sunday afternoon? BEN STANSALL/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

While the rest of the drivers were taking part in preseason testing in Barcelona in February, Nico Hulkenberg was partying at the Rio de Janeiro carnival. At the time, it looked like his F1 career, which has famously never featured a podium finish in a record 177 attempts, was over.

The coronavirus has changed the world beyond recognition since then and, inadvertently, gave Hulkenberg another chance to prove his potential in F1. Standing in for Sergio Perez at Racing Point, who caught the virus ahead of last week’s British Grand Prix, Hulkenberg put in one of the best performances of his career to take third on the grid.

“It’s crazy, huh? What can happen in life and how quickly things can change,” he said. “Last week Thursday, on Friday an F1 comeback in 10 hours, just nuts, starting at ground zero, obviously the low on Sunday [when the car failed to start], and now back here, yeah, bit lost for words but very amazing, very special days.”

The controversially quick Racing Point RP20 had a lot to do with the result, but when you consider Hulkenberg’s lack of track time compared to the rest, it was still a remarkable result. Racing Point found that they were running too high a wing level to maximise the performance of its car over a single lap and the changes ahead of Saturday’s qualifying session appear to have found the sweet spot.

It’s probably tempting fate to suggest Hulkenberg can finally score that elusive podium in Sunday’s race, and Max Verstappen in fourth on the grid is one very good reason he won’t be able to do it. But after everything else that has happened this year to Hulkenberg, you wouldn’t rule it out.

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High praise

Nico Hulkenberg was congratulated by former teammate Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen after qualifying Andrew Boyers/Pool via Getty Images

Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo, who finished behind Hulkenberg in the order, immediately congratulated Hulkenberg in parc fermé after he had parked alongside the No. 3 sign. Verstappen wants to see Hulkenberg, who was not picked up by another team after losing his Renault seat last year, back on the grid next season.

“I’m very happy for Nico,” Verstappen said. “He should have been already on the grid normally and I hope that this will give him a seat for next year.”

Ricciardo, Hulkenberg’s teammate last year, said: “Honestly, hats off to him. We all know that car’s working, but I don’t just want to say it’s the car.

“He has obviously done a really good job and to be sitting on the couch for so long, it’s not easy. Even though he’s a veteran, it’s not easy to do that — I don’t care what anyone says — so hats off to him, he’s done a really good job.”

What on earth is wrong with Sebastian Vettel?

It’s starting to get uncomfortable to watch Sebastian Vettel when he’s racing. He just looks painfully ordinary.

There might be some fairly obvious explanations. Perhaps he is still stinging, deep down, from the way Ferrari unceremoniously told him he would not be driving in red next year. Maybe he is distracted by his 2021 negotiations with Racing Point, which are clearly very real and going on behind the scenes.

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Whatever it is, Vettel’s form looks to be in a downward spiral. Vettel looked like he had never driven the Ferrari SF1000 last weekend at Silverstone and he hasn’t appeared much more comfortable with the car this time around.

Most striking of all was that his elimination from Q2 was not as much of a surprise as it might have been even a few weeks ago.

When driving back to the pits, a deflated Vettel radioed Ferrari to say: “That was all I had, that was everything that was in this car. So, I’m trying. Thanks.”

After the session he praised Ferrari for the improvements made from last weekend, but clearly those have not been enough.

“To go faster I need more grip,” he said after qualifying. “I have to say compliments to my engineering group: We tried lots of things. I felt a bit better in the car this weekend but if you look at the stopwatch it seems to make no difference. “So it feels like we are hitting a wall. I was happy with my laps and I don’t think there was more in my car.”

Most dauntingly, he said: “It will be very difficult tomorrow to fight for points”

A crucial pole for Bottas

The margin over Lewis Hamilton was tiny at just 0.063s, but the confidence boost it will give Valtteri Bottas will be huge. After falling 30 points behind Hamilton last week with a tyre failure, Bottas needed to do something special.

The session was unusual, with the Mercedes drivers setting their fastest laps on the medium compound tyre rather than the soft, but despite the topsy-turvy nature of Q3, it was Bottas who made the difference with a standout middle sector of the lap. Bottas said he applied the lessons from last weekend, when he qualified second behind Hamilton, and found a sweeter setup to extract more performance from the car.

“Of course, I cannot go into too much details in terms of what we did set-up wise, but we’ve been able to improve the car’s set-up for me,” he said. “I think I had a slight deficit in qualifying last weekend, just in terms of the direction I want last weekend.

“I don’t think it was a bad race car, but I hope now it’s optimized. As always, between the races, we analyze everything from the race weekend, the set-up, my driving in qualifying and the race and I drove a bit better.

“At least today I managed to do some things better than I did last weekend. It’s a pretty standard process, to be honest, I just don’t want to go into the details about the set-up, but it just felt better today in qualifying than last weekend.”

Of course, it’s still less than half the job done for Bottas. Last week proved how on edge the tyres are at Silverstone and with softer compounds likely to bring about a two-stop race, there will be a number of hurdles in the way of Bottas on Sunday. Winning ahead of Hamilton will reduce the gap in the standings by seven points to 23. It may not sound like much for such a huge effort, but Bottas’ only chance of beating his teammate to this year’s title is to maximise small margins like he did on Saturday.

Raikkonen props up the order

Before we talk about Kimi Raikkonen, a quick moment for statistics: Alfa Romeo qualified 1st-2nd-3rd-4th at the 1950 British Grand Prix. They qualified 19th and 20th out of 20 for this weekend’s 70th Anniversary Grand Prix, the event named in commemoration of the first world championship race at Silverstone.

On to the Iceman. The history books will show Raikkonen was the Alfa Romeo driver in 20th, meaning he trails teammate Antonio Giovinazzi 4-1 in qualifying head-to-head this year. It’s been quite a turnaround from last year, when Raikkonen had been stronger in the first portion of the season.

Raikkonen was in typically bullish form when he arrived in the TV pen after the session.

When asked what went wrong, Raikkonen said: “We’re just too slow. We can go up one or two places here or there, but it makes no f—ing difference for us.

“We’re simply too slow — as simple as that — and it looks like the others improve a lot from free practice to qualifying. We tried everything that we had and we’ll try again tomorrow.”

Raikkonen’s famously cold, standoffish demeanour means his motivation has always been questioned, even when he has had competitive machinery. The Finn is a pure racer at heart so it’s fair to wonder just how long the Iceman will be content making up the numbers at the back of the field.

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