SINGAPORE -- When Nico Hulkenberg awoke to a hazy Singapore on Thursday morning, he must have felt confident his Formula One career could realistically survive beyond 2019.
Renault's decision to partner Daniel Ricciardo with Esteban Ocon for 2020 had left the experienced German scrambling to find a place on the grid, but there were still options available. The most fancied was at Haas with the out-of-sorts Romain Grosjean viewed from the outside as a 50-50 shot at best to retain his seat alongside Kevin Magnussen.
But at 3:00pm, around the time the haze had subsided, everything changed. Haas announced they were retaining Grosjean for next season, and with it, Hulkenberg's 2020 options narrowed even further.
"I kind of knew it was coming, or could see it coming," a disappointed Hulkenberg told a packed media contingent at Marina Bay. "Haas was definitely an option, and we were talking, but we just couldn't agree on a deal.
"Right now I don't know [what I will do] but I think there's still possibilities and realistic chances, we just need a bit more time. I think you can see for yourself what's available and what's not. That's pretty obvious."
There are currently five seats available for 2020.
Red Bull is yet to announce who will partner Max Verstappen, while the two Toro Rosso slots will be filled once that decision is made. The trio of Alex Albon, Pierre Gasly and Daniil Kvyat are all vying for the main seat with the unlucky two drivers expected to take the positions at the junior team. While possible, it's unlikely Hulkenberg would come into consideration -- mainly because he's never been involved in the Red Bull family -- leaving just two realistic options.
The first is at Williams, following Robert Kubica's announcement he would be leaving the team at season's end. But does Hulkenberg, a man with eight seasons of experience and 172 races under his belt, really want to be fighting with George Russell at the back of the grid?
"As much as I want to continue, for me it needs to make sense," Hulkenberg said. "I'm not desperate to stay in Formula One. It needs to be sensible and it needs to be the right deal. I'm not disregarding or disrespecting Williams."
With Hulkenberg all but drawing a line through Williams, that leaves one final seat at Alfa Romeo -- currently occupied by Antonio Giovinazzi. Ever since Alfa Romeo's involvement with the team came about at the start of 2018, a Ferrari junior driver has occupied that seat as part of a wider technical relationship with Maranello, but right now it's his best shot of remaining in the sport.
While it's clear Hulkenberg's options have dried up, it doesn't mean he's looking outside of Formula One.
"There has been interest from other [motorsport] series," Hulkenberg said. "But I have not really pursued that. My head is very much here still."
Why did Haas choose Grosjean over Hulkenberg?
Both Guenther Steiner and Gene Haas were in negotiations with the out-of-contract Hulkenberg throughout the summer break, but there was a reason he never received a formal contract to look over.
"Sometimes you need the new fire ignited, but sometimes you need to think about how we did it between 2017 and 2018," Steiner said. "So why would I want to change and take a risk? With Romain, we know what we've got."
Being a known quantity was a major advantage for Grosjean. The 33-year-old has had his ups and downs -- including a series of avoidable accidents at the start of last season -- but he has been there since the first race in 2016 and contributed to many of the team's better results.
Hulkenberg may be equally as talented, but how long would it take for him to get up to speed at a new team? And could he reach the same heights? Plus, would it really be fair to dump Grosjean following Haas' season-long battle with tyre issues that he can't exactly be blamed for.
"This year our car is not performing as we want it to perform, which in the end has nothing to do with the drivers we have in the car," Steiner said. "Romain was a big part of understanding what is wrong with the car. I don't know if changing driver would help us to be better.
"They are both very good drivers, but in the end we decided to stay with Romain. He has been with the team for four years and he knows the team well."
Grosjean may have received the contract, but he can consider himself a tad fortunate to retain his place at Haas. The Frenchman has only tallied eight championship points this season and has been outscored by Magnussen 74-45 since the beginning of 2018.
If he hopes to continue beyond 2020, he will need to find consistency and reduce the errors which have plagued him in recent seasons.
But for now, he is just excited to continue his journey with Haas.
"It's great news that I will be with the team for a fifth consecutive season," Grosjean said. "We've been together from day one and it feels like the story is not yet over.
"Obviously this year has been a challenge, but it has also been a good year in terms of growing for the team and what went wrong and how we can move on in the future. I'm looking forward to many more races in black and gold under the Haas colours."