It was the kind of performance that everybody knew he was capable of but that had been conspicuous by its absence in the Melbourne curtain-raiser, and after claiming his first podium finish in F1 in precisely two years in today's Malaysian Grand Prix at Sepang, Nick Heidfeld confirmed that Lotus Renault GP 'has taken a big step forward this year'.
Heidfeld and team-mate Vitaly Petrov had already begun their fightback from a calamitous opening day in Kuala Lumpur – in which both had suffered suspension failures and a consequent loss of preparation and set-up time [see separate story – click here
] – by lining up in sixth and eighth positions on the grid respectively.
From there, the pair made lightning-quick getaways when the starting lights went out, both aiming for the outside of the track into Turn One, leaving their braking as late as they dared and emerging in second and fifth places. After firmly but fairly rebuffing the advances of front row starter Lewis Hamilton around the opening lap, Heidfeld then proceeded to continue to stave off his McLaren-Mercedes rival during the opening stint of the race.
Although he lost out in each of his three pit-stops, 'Quick Nick' displayed strong and consistent pace throughout and managed his tyres well in the tricky conditions. Following Hamilton and Fernando Alonso's late coming-together that left the 2008 F1 World Champion's car with a damaged floor, he determinedly hunted the Briton down and boldly dived up the inside into the first corner with barely a handful of laps remaining, before going on to withstand the pressure applied by a charging Mark Webber all the way to the chequered flag.
As a way of atoning for his Albert Park disappointment, it was a superb riposte
, and the experienced German's first trip to the rostrum since the same race in 2009 firmly vindicated Renault's faith in him as a stand-in for the injured Robert Kubica.
“I had a great start just like in Australia, and did not expect to make up so many positions,” confessed the 33-year-old. “I moved up to P2, making up four places. After that, I did my best to follow Sebastian [Vettel], but he was much quicker. Then I noticed some drops of rain and my tyres were going off, but I stayed out. I lost a couple of places at my first pit-stop, but it's clear we had really good pace and we were able to fight with the cars ahead.
“I got lucky with Fernando having a problem, but it was great fun fighting and getting ahead of Lewis. In the final few laps Mark was close behind me, but we had the pace to stay ahead. It's another great result for Lotus Renault GP, and it's clear the team has taken a big step forward this year.”
Indeed, the Enstone-based outfit had looked to be on-course for a double points-scoring outcome, with Petrov settling into the lower reaches of the top ten and lying in a solid eighth position when – just a few laps from home – he ran wide and off-piste through Turn Eight and in attempting to rejoin the track across the grass, bounced up into the air, leaving the young Russian with a broken steering column mount.
“First of all, I am happy for the team as we got another podium, so we can consider this a great start to the season for us,” reflected the 26-year-old. “It was a strong performance by the team in an unusual race. I made a small mistake which shouldn't have had the consequences it had. I went wide and the car took off on the curb, landing hard. Both cars should have been in the points today, but the good news is that we clearly have the pace needed to compete this season.”