Nico Hulkenberg would have been a Mercedes driver if the team had not signed Lewis Hamilton in 2013, according to former team principal Ross Brawn.
Hulkenberg reaffirmed his F1 credentials at the weekend's 70th Anniversary Grand Prix, where he stepped in as a substitue for Sergio Perez following the Mexican driver's positive COVID-19 test. Hulkenberg qualified third and was running fifth until a late pit-stop dropped him to seventh.
Hulkenberg also stepped in for the British Grand Prix a week earlier, although his car failed to start ahead of the race.
Brawn, who is now F1's motor racing boss, said Hulkenberg deserves a full-time contract next season and offered a tantalising glimpse at how differently the German driver's career might have panned out if Mercedes had been unsuccessful in its pursuit of Hamilton.
"It was going to be an incredible physical challenge for Nico and I don't know how much he hurt at the end of the race," Brawn said. "But it was great performance all weekend by someone who had just been dropped in the deep end.
"I almost signed him years ago, when I was in charge at Mercedes. If Lewis hadn't joined Mercedes when he did, Nico was our next choice.
"I've always respected Nico enormously as a driver. He's a very strong driver who should be in Formula One."
As it turned out, Hamilton joined the team as Nico Rosberg's teammate for the 2013. In the time since he has won five world championships.
It is widely believed Hulkenberg was in the frame for a Ferrari drive around the same time, but the Italian team opted to retain Felipe Massa for another season alongside Fernando Alonso instead. After another year at Sauber, Hulkenberg drove for Force India between 2014 and 2016 before moving to Renault.
Infamously, he holds the record for the most F1 race starts (178) without a single visit to the podium.