Notable Absentees: Nick Heidfeld 22/03/10

The 2010 season is the first in which Nick Heidfeld does not have a Formula 1 race seat since entering the top flight ten years ago with Alain Prost’s team. Heidfeld’s decade in F1 ended last year with the withdrawal of BMW Motorsport, leaving Quick Nick to chase fruitlessly after drives at Mercedes and McLaren amongst others. Eventually, for this season he ended up as reserve driver for Mercedes GP, and one can’t help but feel Heidfeld’s time in a top F1 race seat is over.

Nick Heidfeld entered F1 on the back of impressive campaigns in the lower formulae. F1’s then main feeder series was F3000, albeit much more indirectly than GP2 is now. Heidfeld narrowly missed out on becoming a rookie F3000 champion in 1998, losing out in the end to a hungrier and more experienced Juan Pablo Montoya. Having already tested a McLaren F1 car the year before that through becoming the 1997 German F3 champion, Heidfeld was taken on as McLaren F1 test driver in ’98. In his second year of F3000, Nick won the championship convincingly. While the calibre of competition in that year may have been questionable, with only Franck Montagny, Alex Yoong, Enrique Bernoldi, Justin Wilson and Stephane Sarrazin ever making it to an F1 race seat for any period of time, you can only beat what is in front of you. Or not in front of you, as the case was in 1999 for Heidfeld and the series-leading West Competition outfit.

In his early F1 career while driving for Sauber between 2001 and 2003, Heidfeld had Felipe Massa and Kimi Raikkonen as teammates, both of whom have gone on to achieve much in F1. Despite coming out on top against both of those Ferrari-bound men, his long term stock never rose the way Massa’s and Raikkonen’s did. A spell at Williams-BMW in 2005 saw Heidfeld record his first pole position at the Nurburgring, and in a memorable race where Raikkonen’s McLaren fell apart on the last lap and most of the big names had some off-track drama, Nick held it together to finish 2nd. This immediately after another great showing at Monaco, where he also finished 2nd. Despite these memorable results, he finished behind Williams teammate Mark Webber in the final 2005 standings, his chance at a front-running Williams car coming a year too late. However, Heidfeld had done enough to impress head of BMW Motorsport Mario Theissen.

The defining period of Nick Heidfeld’s Formula 1 career was undoubtedly his four years as a BMW Sauber driver alongside Robert Kubica. After seeing off the challenge of Jacques Villeneuve in the sister BMW, the impressive late season debut by new-boy Kubica in 2006 once again cast the spotlight on someone other than Nick. His response to the hype and excitement around yet another wunderkind teammate was Heidfeld’s greatest triumph, his best ever season. In 2007 when all eyes were on McLaren, Alonso, Hamilton, Raikkonen, Ferrari and spygate, Heidfeld scored points in 14 out of 17 races, finishing a career-best 5th in the championship. Most notably, eclipsing his highly-rated teammate Kubica 61 points to 39, but again finishing no higher than 2nd in a race. The following season saw BMW-Sauber produce a car far more to Kubica’s liking, and in a season where the team finally had a championship challenging, race-winning car, it was his teammate who took a memorable first win for the Munich-Hinwil outfit in Canada. Heidfeld was, of course, 2nd. Nick managed four podiums to Kubica’s seven, and finished 15 points adrift of his teammate at the completion of the season.

Finally, in 2009 when BMW-Sauber were genuinely expected to be a serious title prospect, the KERS-powered ball was dramatically dropped. Often off the pace, both Heidfeld and Kubica struggled to get anything out of the ’09 package. While development of the car did lead to better late-season form, the decision had already been made to withdraw from F1, leaving Heidfeld out of a job. Despite such an uncompetitive machine, Heidfeld did record yet another 2nd place finish in the monsoon conditions of Sepang. Those oft-quoted Heidfeld adjectives came to mind; Solid, dependable, reliable, consistent. It’s no wonder Heidfeld holds the record for most consecutive finishes in F1 races. With such a record, how was it that Heidfeld was unable to find a seat on the 2010 grid, whereas Kubica (who Heidfeld beat again) was able to land the lead driver position at Renault? Was it due to Heidfeld’s other records, that of the driver with the most F1 championship points without a win, the most 2nd places without a win, the most podiums without a win?

Every F1 team wants to believe that given the right car, their driver can win races, even if they are the 11th fastest team on the grid. Does his lack of a winner’s trophy make Heidfeld any less worthy of a 2010 seat than Heikki Kovalainen or Jarno Trulli? Did a career built on reliability and results, and a good record against illustrious teammates, not even earn him a place at a Sauber or Force India? Ever since his first foray into F1, Heidfeld will feel that the limelight was always reserved for his contemporaries, whether it was Montoya and his tie up with Williams and Chip Ganassi, Raikkonen getting the McLaren drive he felt belonged to him, Kubica receiving the plaudits at BMW or Schumacher, Rosberg, Vettel and even Hulkenburg being the more celebrated Germans.

I doubt we’ve seen the last of Nick Heidfeld in an F1 race seat, but maybe we’ve already seen the best that he has to offer in a car that could, and should have made him a winner. Yes we remember the move around the outside of Fernando Alonso’s McLaren at Bahrain in 2007, and yes we remember Nick was the first driver in 31 years to take an F1 car to the Nordschleife. But as it stands, a driver who showed much early promise and clearly justified his place in F1, may be remembered more for what he did not achieve.

1 comment:

AERO_HDT said...

I really felt Nick Heidfeld was an underrrated driver, but he was far from a complete package. It takes an awful lot to succeed in F1, a lot more than just consistency and beating your teammate. It takes financial backing and little bit of nouse to play the off-field game, otherwise you end up without an ace up your sleeve, especially if you come to the bagaining table without any chips.

I doubt we'll see Nick in open wheelers again - he'll probably end up in sportscar racing somewhere next year and I reckon he'll be in for a good chance at a LeMans seat later this year.