But he had qualified eleventh in Melbourne, seven places ahead of rookie teammate Esteban Gutierrez.
It now emerges that Sauber could actually have sidelined Mexican Gutierrez, giving the working C32 to Hulkenberg and maintaining a very real chance of a good result.
In the end, Gutierrez finished outside of the points in Australia.
"Did Sauber give away championship points?" wondered veteran Blick newspaper correspondent Roger Benoit.
"The team confirmed on Friday (in Malaysia) that the FIA would have permitted a driver change."
However, Hulkenberg would have had to start the race in Gutierrez's car from the pitlane.
And team boss Monisha Kaltenborn insisted: "It was not an option for us."
But Germany's Auto Motor und Sport said the situation raises a fascinating question.
"What would Red Bull or Ferrari do in the same situation, if the world title was at stake? Would Mark Webber or Felipe Massa give up their cars to the team captains?" wondered correspondent Michael Schmidt.