Heidfeld: Leaving the last chance saloon

By on Thursday, August 25, 2011

So ‘Quick Nick’ finds himself knocking on doors again after being unceremoniously dropped by Lotus Renault GP on the eve of the Belgian Grand Prix. Heidfeld has been given several ‘last chances’ over the course of his long career, as he holds various records: most grand prix starts without a win, most consecutive finishes (41) and the most finishes in a season (all 18 in 2008). Sadly none of these records are worth shouting about, but that is not to diminish Heidfeld’s pedigree by any stretch of the imagination, just that he is one in a long list of drivers whose full potential has never been fulfilled.

Heidfeld started out in Formula One in 2000, having won F3000 – the equivalent of GP2 today – in 1999. His drive was with the lowly Prost team and Heidfeld struggled in the uncompetitive machinery, with several retirements and a collision with team mate Jean Alesi. Nevertheless, 2001 saw him join Sauber and he performed admirably, taking his first podium in Brazil and finishing the season 8th in the championship. When Mika Hakkinen announced that he was taking a sabbatical for the 2002 season, many expected Heidfeld – previously linked with McLaren – to replace him. However, despite Heidfeld outperforming Kimi Raikkonen in 2001, McLaren opted to take the Finn. Whilst Raikkonen went on to win races, Heidfeld was stuck at Sauber and although he beat Felipe Massa in 2002, he didn’t perform well against Heinz Harald Frentzen in 2003. Out of contract at the end of the season, Sauber signed Giancarlo Fisichella, leaving Heidfeld without a seat. After a couple of tests with Jordan, Heidfeld was announced at the team alongside Giorgio Pantano. Heidfeld was stuck with the slow and unreliable EJ14, although still endeared himself to the team as he amassed three points.

2005 saw a return to the podium

Prior to the 2005 season, Heidfeld was subjected to a shoot-out against Antonio Pizzonia for a William seat which cannot have been too confidence building: having to compete against a man who had struggled badly at Jaguar. 2005 was a moderately successful season: Heidfeld held his own against the highly rated Mark Webber and took his first pole position. However, fortune was again to be against Heidfeld. He missed two races after a testing accident and when training for his return, he was hit by a motorbike whilst cycling and missed the rest of the season. Despite this, Heidfeld found himself at BMW Sauber in 2006, after BMW abandoned Williams’ F1 project and launched their own. A podium in 2006 was built on with more success in 2007, although that first win still eluded him. The 2008 Canadian Grand Prix was BMW Sauber’s first – and only – victory, although it could have been taken by Heidfeld not Kubica, as the German moved across to help his team mate, who was lighter on fuel and under attack from Fernando Alonso.

2009 was an uncompetitive season

When BMW pulled the plug on F1 after a disappointing 2009 season, Heidfeld was again left without a seat. Peter Sauber saved the team, but signed Kamui Kobayashi and Pedro de La Rosa. Whilst Robert Kubica fled to Renault and rebuilt his own reputation, Heidfeld was left on the sidelines and spent 2010 undertaking a variety of roles. Firstly he was Mercedes’ test driver, then Pirelli’s test driver and was eventually signed by Sauber for the final five races of the season. Before the end of the season though, Heidfeld again knew his options for 2011 were limited – Sauber had decided to replace him with Sergio Perez.

So, in ten seasons, Heidfeld had beaten Kimi Raikkonen, Felipe Massa and had held his own against Robert Kubica and Mark Webber. Yet all of those went on to enjoy success and Heidfeld didn’t. You could argue that Heidfeld was just unlucky – he went to Williams in 2005 at the start of their downfall, whilst the cards never fell correctly when he was with BMW. Similarly, others who seemed destined to never enjoy success – Mark Webber and Jenson Button – ended up with their reputations greatly increased after being in the right place at the right time. But for Heidfeld, there was one last lifeline.

Heidfeld replaced Kubica after the Pole's injury

When Robert Kubica was injured in February, Renault turned to Heidfeld. He rewarded their belief with him by taking a podium in the Malaysian Grand Prix – his thirteenth without a win. Yet there still wasn’t the feeling that Heidfeld was wanted in the long term should Kubica be unable to return from injury. Despite his placement ahead of Vitaly Petrov in the championship, team principal Eric Bouiller expressed his disappointment with Heidfeld’s performances, even blaming him for the spectacular fire in Hungary.

It’s been clear for a while that Heidfeld’s days at Renault have been numbered and Senna is now in his seat for the immediate future. The list of drivers on Renault’s website no longer shows Heidfeld: just Petrov, Senna, Kubica and Grosjean. A fab five has become a fantastic four. There will be pressure on Senna to prove himself to be a worthy replacement, but he is there firstly because of money – rumours still persist of financial difficulties at Renault – and because Renault wants to evaluate his progress. Heidfeld has not led the team sufficiently enough according to Bouiller and from the team’s perspective, it is a logical step. They won’t catch Mercedes but Sauber are a comfortable distance behind them in the championship. They need to evaluate a young driver – perhaps another in the form of Romain Grosjean – should Kubica be unable to return.

So how will Nick Heidfeld be remembered? The unlucky guy? The perennial underachiever? Heidfeld does have a personality that suggests that despite almost reaching 200 starts, some may not even remember him at all! But that’s suggesting that his career is already over, which is far from the case.

It is easy to forget that Heidfeld is only 34 years old. Some of his contemporaries are older – Webber is 35 this weekend, Trulli 37, Barrichello 39, Schumacher 42. However, options in F1 appear limited, not least because of his nationality. Few sponsors will be willing to commit to someone who, in their eyes, has already proved their worth and who is up against Vettel, Schumacher, Rosberg, Sutil and Glock (and Hulkenberg to an extent) to prove themselves as the best German. Perhaps a move to touring cars might suffice, with BMW keen to add him to their roster of drivers when they enter DTM next season.

So farewell, ‘Quick Nick’. You may not have had the best luck in F1, but be glad that you weren’t called Joe. Might have created a new nickname all together there.

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