Nick Heidfeld again used his experience, strong racecraft and wet weather expertise to good effect in the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps today – as he mastered the treacherous conditions to perfection to secure his fourth rostrum finish of the 2008 Formula 1 campaign, and with it regain fifth spot in the title chase.
The experienced German is fighting to retain his seat in the top flight next year following a troubled time over the season thus far, but he answered his critics with aplomb around what is widely acknowledged to be the greatest test of a driver's skill the world over.
After out-qualifying team-mate Robert Kubica for only the second time this year to line up fifth on the grid, the 31-year-old went on to recover from a delayed start when he was assaulted by the McLaren-Mercedes of Heikki Kovalainen to latch onto the back of the battle for fifth place, involving Kubica and the Scuderia Toro Rosso pairing of Sébastien Bourdais and Sebastian Vettel. He was looking set to take away just a sole marker for eighth place – until the promised rain came just a handful of laps from home…
“I had a fantastic race weekend and I am very happy today,” enthused the man from Mönchengladbach, promoted from third place to second in the final reckoning following the post-race penalty applied to on-the-road winner Lewis Hamilton [see separate story – click here
“At the start I got off better than the guys in front of me; then I decided to go for the outside line, but unfortunately Heikki Kovalainen crashed into my car. This can happen, and I was lucky my car wasn't damaged.
“Of course I lost a lot of places. Later on in the race I was able to get some back, but then I got stuck in traffic. When the drizzle set in I was convinced it would be heavier on the next lap and decided to change to wet weather tyres. The team asked me if I meant what I said.
“When I left the pit-lane after the stop I asked on the radio 'how many laps to go', and my engineer said this one and another one. As I couldn't see any cars on the track I thought, oh this was probably the wrong decision, but then it paid off. It was a hero or zero decision.”
It was an inspired call, and one that Kubica – who ran ahead of his team-mate for two thirds of the grand prix – would have liked to have emulated, but after losing time in his second pit-stop the Polish erstwhile title contender found himself behind Heidfeld, meaning he would have had to queue up behind the sister F1.08 had he elected to similarly change rubber.
Heidfeld indeed went all the way around the outside of Kubica on the race's last lap, leaving the latter to take the chequered flag four spots behind in sixth – which was nonetheless enough to move him narrowly back up to third position in the drivers' standings, a single marker ahead of defending F1 World Champion Kimi Raikkonen, who crashed out of contention in Spa.