F1 2019: Nico Hulkenberg's biggest test yet against Daniel Ricciardo
Why Ricciardo's Renault arrival could be a gamechanger for Hulkenberg; Sunday's season-opening Australian GP starts at 5.10am on Sky Sports F1 and Sky Sports Main Event
By James Galloway
Last Updated: 13/03/19 6:16pm
Nico Hulkenberg begins his eighth season as a Formula 1 driver in Melbourne this weekend, but 2019 might be the year the sport learns most about him.
The reason? The arrival of Daniel Ricciardo as his new Renault team-mate and the immediate creation of a race-winning yardstick that, until now, has been almost impossible to truly judge Hulkenberg against.
With Renault collectively aiming to take a step towards F1's three biggest teams, it's an increased level of scrutiny the 31-year-old Hulkenberg appears ready for.
Addressing the inevitable Ricciardo question straight on at Renault's launch event last month, Hulkenberg admitted: "It's an important and big year in a way that I now have a team-mate who is a proven grand prix winner.
"It was sort of like that with Rubens [Barrichello, at Williams in 2010] but it was different. It was my rookie season and he was in something like his 18th season, so it wasn't a good or fair comparison.
"This is much more real and good to compare. So for me personally it's a very important year to see how I step up next to that. That will obviously also determine my sporting future in a way."
That's likely how most observers see it too.
Hulkenberg's performance in the same machinery as Ricciardo will go a long way to defining how the next stage of his career pans out.
So where is Hulkenberg at?
Sunday's Australian GP will be Hulkenberg's 157th as an F1 race driver and by the end of the campaign he will enter the top 25 for the most grands prix starts in history.
Famously, none of his 156 races to date have featured a podium finish - giving him an unwanted all-time record. Instead, there has been three fourth-placed finishes and 85 top-10 results in all.
Consistency and reliability are certainly two words you would associate with Hulkenberg and the facts underline that: only seven drivers on the current grid boast a superior points-scoring percentage than him.
2019 drivers with better than 50% career points finishes
But, unfairly or not, it's that absence of an F1 podium that continues to dog questions about Hulkenberg's career.
"Obviously I do want to be on there one day. We're working on it, I'm working on it," said the German.
"Is it going to happen this year? If it is possible, it's impossible to say right now."
Ricciardo ready for challenge
Since joining Renault from Force India in 2017, Hulkenberg has quietly got the better of his first two team-mates at Enstone, initially Jolyon Palmer and latterly Carlos Sainz.
He has scored 58 per cent of improving Renault's points in that time and his latest team-mate is aware Hulkenberg will not be an easy man to overhaul.
"I think that everyone who knows F1 knows his calibre," said Ricciardo. "From the outside, you can think that he's done 200 races or whatever and never had a podium, but we all know he isn't that level of driver."
Now against a driver of Ricciardo's proven calibre in 2019, Hulkenberg has that chance to show what he's all about.
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