There was something a little underwhelming about Thursday’s announcements from Haas. Mick Schumacher was ousted from Formula 1 after just two seasons; the 23-year-old losing his seat to Nico Hulkenberg.
Hulkenberg is a very good driver, but it seems slightly harsh to drop a driver so early in their career and replace him with a 35-year-old who has not had a full-time ride since 2019.
Schumacher had some very expensive crashes that were costly not just in terms of finances but his future hopes this year, the most dramatic coming in Saudi Arabia where he was airlifted to hospital and missed the race. That incident came as he was pushing to get his car into Q3 after having enjoyed a competitive start to the weekend.
At the season-opener, Kevin Magnussen’s quality shone through while Schumacher struggled to get comfortable with the new car, the German finishing 11th while Magnussen stunned with a fifth place on his return. By the time Schumacher returned from his Saudi Arabia crash for the Australian GP, his teammate already had 12 points to his name.
Another crash in Monaco when he’d yet to score did not reflect well on Schumacher, and by then Magnussen was up to 15 points. But since that point things improved markedly, with 2020 Formula 2 champion impressing in Silverstone and Austria, and outscoring Magnussen 12 points to 10 from the fifth round of the season onwards.
While such results can be misleading when points are scored intermittently, close qualifying performances on the whole also reflected better on Schumacher. But he needed to do more.
A crash in practice at Suzuka was terribly timed, but the real problem was that he just wasn’t taking the opportunities that were presenting themselves in races. A decision might have been made by then, but his qualifying performance in Brazil shows how fine margins in F1 can lead to hugely different outcomes.
I still believed that Schumacher offered a good option for Haas simply on the basis that he was improving, and the team had gone through the hard yards with him as a rookie – and then early this year – and was starting to see a return on that effort. But a lack of overall engagement with the team in his first season was lingering the memory, much like two of the team’s previous drivers.
When Magnussen was first at Haas, he and Romain Grosjean often pulled out big results when they were on offer. Granted, they were seen less and less frequently as the team’s performance declined, and there were costly mistakes then too, but Steiner was always aware of the strength of his driver line-up and the way Magnussen and Grosjean pushed one another.
And now the reason Haas has gone for Hulkenberg is clear. It wants a known quantity.
Schumacher is still learning his trade and was up-and-down, but the team is back on the up and Steiner wants to know where it still needs to improve. The score between Schumacher and Magnussen led to suggestions that perhaps the Dane wasn’t being pushed hard enough at all times, and that a more consistent and proven teammate would address that.
Hulkenberg has certainly shown the motivation for his return, lobbying Steiner hard and even putting together presentations showing what he could do for the team. And while he might not have a podium to his name in 181 starts, he averages nearly three points a race despite having spent his career solely in midfield teams, showing his tendency to pick up top 10s on a regular basis.
His three seasons on the sidelines might plant a seed of doubt, but Haas can be pretty confident that if the car is good enough for points, Hulkenberg will deliver. And if he doesn’t, then Magnussen should.
Schumacher still has the potential to keep improving and become a stronger all-round driver worthy of an F1 seat, but Hulkenberg provided more of a sure thing in that regard, and the experience to help maintain the team’s momentum after such a big step forward this year compared to the previous two.
It might not be all that exciting an appointment, but that’s not what Haas is looking for right now. In such a competitive midfield, the youngest team on the grid still heavily values experience, and as harsh as it may seem for Schumacher, that’s something he obviously won’t have for a few more years.