Perhaps the worst-kept secret in F1 this season (apart from Alonso’s move to Ferrari) has been that Rubens Barrichello and Nico Hülkenberg will be driving for Williams in 2010. Today it was finally announced.
Historically, Williams has been a team that has been all too happy to dispense with even their best drivers. The fact that they held on to Nico Rosberg for four seasons is possibly a sign that they have learnt their lesson — that exchanging World Champions for the likes of Heinz-Harald Frentzen or Ralf Schumacher is not a championship-winning approach.
Nevertheless, Joe Saward has speculated that Williams are not too jazzed about Nico Rosberg, which is why they have no problems letting him go (presumably to Brawn). This is strange if you ask me, because 2009 has been the season when I was finally convinced that Nico Rosberg has some talent. In my mid-season review I ranked Rosberg in 5th, and I doubt he’ll be much lower in my end-of-season rankings.
But the decision to partner their protégé Nico Hülkenberg, who Williams have been grooming for the past few years, with Rubens Barrichello looks like a very mature move. I would say that this partnership is possibly stronger than any they have had since the mid-1990s.
For a few years now, Nico Hülkenberg has been a youngster to watch. He exploded into the international motorsport scene when he dominated the 2006–2007 A1GP season. He attended all but one event for A1 Team Germany and scored 14 podiums out of 20 starts, effectively clinching the title for Germany. (I wonder if he ever received his prize money for that season…)
He then spent two seasons in Formula 3 Euroseries. He finished 3rd in his first season. But although he clinched the title in his second attempt, I would have argued that he did not need another F3 season to justify a presence in GP2.
When he finally made the step to GP2, he impressively won the title at his first attempt. In the process, he beat several more experienced drivers including two who have already made the move to F1 — Romain Grosjean and Kamui Kobayashi.
We have seen too many times that success in lower formulae is no guarantee of success in F1. No Formula 3000 Champion ever went on to become an F1 champion (although Lewis Hamilton did become a GP2 Champion on his way to F1). I do, however, feel that Hülkenberg is a seriously exciting talent.
By pairing him up with Rubens Barrichello, Williams have ensured that he will have every opportunity to succeed. In essence, they have given this hugely promising rookie the best mentor in the world in the shape of the most experienced F1 driver of all time, Rubens Barrichello.
It is no secret that Jenson Button owed a lot to Barrichello’s set-up data this season. The Brazilian’s experience makes him an expert at setting up the car. He can now pass his wisdom on to a true rookie — one who will surely truly appreciate the help.
I am sure it is help that Barrichello will be more than happy to provide. He is clearly a nice guy. And in the knowledge that he is in his final year or two of F1, helping cultivate a new talent may well appeal to him. It is, after all, what his former team-mate Michael Schumacher did with Felipe Massa.