F1 » Nick Heidfeld
Little was heard of Nick Heidfeld outside of his German homeland until he started to turn heads in the national F3 series.
Sharing a birthplace with fellow Monchengladbach boy Heinz-Harald Frentzen, the young Heidfeld began, like so many others, in karting. He made his debut, aged nine, in 1986, and used his formative years to build the experience necessary to win titles. Although these were slow to come in karting, Heidfeld held enough promise to be selected for both the World and European championships in 1991, and finished fifth in the German series a year later.
Another World Karting Championship entry in 1993 preceded the jump to cars, as Nick made his debut in the 1994 German FFord series. Eight wins in nine starts gained the attention of the German media as he won the 1600cc class, and set the youngster up for the move to higher things. The following year saw him finish as runner-up in the overall standings, with a maiden championship title in the concurrent German Zetec series.
1996 saw a move to the German F3 championship, and Heidfeld made an immediate impact by claiming third overall behind future F1 rival Jarno Trulli and sometime CART driver Arnd Meier. The following year, Nick made sure that the title was his, although a mid-season hiccup kept the public in suspense for longer than it anticipated.
F3000 was the logical progression for 1998, and Heidfeld stunned again by remaining in the running for the title right to the end. His rival on this occasion was Juan Montoya, and the pair shared seven wins from the 12 races contested.
While Montoya went off to America in search of CART glory, Heidfeld followed the tried and tested path of a second year in each formula. This time, he had little opposition as he romped to the F3000 title, seizing the trophy well before the end of the year, and almost certainly securing himself a place in the top flight.
Given his involvement with the McLaren-backed West Competition squad, and his F1 testing duties, many expected Heidfeld to be squeezed into the Woking operation's grand prix team. This didn't materialise, but such was the impact he created on the F1 paddock, that he was not short of offers, with Prost his eventual destination.
Nick lined up alongside veteran Jean Alesi at Alain Prost's team, but poor testing results were only the start of a long, hard season for the German. Unlike some of his rookie rivals, however, the pressure was not as heavy on the German and, despite not scoring a point and generally being overshadowed by Alesi, he was able to slip easily into alternative employment with Sauber for 2001.
Testing times with both the older C19 and new C20 promised much for Heidfeld, and the German was on the pace from the very first race. Surprisingly, the Swiss team did not fade away mid-season, and both Heidfeld and rookie team-mate Kimi Raikkonen were able to ruffle the feathers of the established midfield giants.
Between them, the youngest duo on the grid racked up 21 points, good enough for fourth in the constructors' series, while Heidfeld got marginally the better of Raikkonen in the drivers' standings, taking eighth overall with twelve points, including a podium finish in Brazil.
It was with some amazement, therefore, that Raikkonen was the man summoned by McLaren to replace the retiring Mika Hakkinen - despite Heidfeld's links with the team during his junior career.
The oversight - as Heidfeld likes to refer to the decision - meant he had much to prove during 2002. The Sauber C21 though didn't have the same impact as the C20, and despite some good performances the Swiss team couldn't match their fantastic fourth place in the constructors' championship. Fifth overall though was a good effort, the outfit scoring 11 points in total, 7 courtesy of Nick.
Heidfeld's best result came at the Spanish GP in April, when he finished fourth behind Michael Schumacher, Juan Montoya and David Coulthard. The German also consistently beat his new team-mate, Felipe Massa, out-racing him 10-4, and out-qualifying him 12-5.
Nick's third successive season with Sauber  was on the whole a largely disappointing campaign. The main highlight was a fifth place at the United States GP, that along with an eighth place finish at the European GP, was as good as it got, and marked the German's only points scoring positions. He ended the season with 6 points in total, joint 14th in the drivers' championship.
The following year - 2004 - brought a change of scene for the German and having been dropped by Sauber he joined Jordan - a deal eventually confirmed at the end of January. Jordan though had another difficult season, and while Heidfeld persevered - much to his credit, as the EJ14 wasn't up to much - it was for little reward.
His efforts though were noted by most down the pit-lane, however, and, despite his best results coming in the early part of the season, with seventh at Monaco and eighth in Canada, Heidfeld's reputation was largely restored.
Denied the chance to move to Williams as replacement for the injured Ralf Schumacher mid-season - and left to take 16th overall with three points in 2004, Heidfeld finally got his chance to move to Grove after a shoot-out with test driver Antonio Pizzonia left him to partner Mark Webber for the 2005 season.
Unfortunately for Heidfeld, it was to be a difficult season for the Williams team, with a public divorce from engine suppliers BMW and a lack of pace compared to the front runners on the grid. Despite that, the German driver managed to bring his car home on the podium on three occasions, taking third in Malaysia before back-to-back second place finishes in Monaco and at the Nurburgring - where he also took a surprise pole position. However points would only be scored on two other occasions and Heidfeld saw his time with the team come to an early end when he picked up an injury which forced him to miss the final four races of the year. He was eventually classified eleventh in the drivers' championship.
With uncertainty over his future thanks to the 'Buttongate' saga, Heidfeld elected to move to the new BMW Sauber team for 2006 - a home-coming of sorts having been with Sauber from 2001-03 - before the announcement that Button wouldn't be joining Williams.
It proved to be a smart decision and while Williams had difficult year having switched to Cosworth engines, Nick shone and at the newly formed BMW Sauber outfit, he quickly established himself as the number one, largely outperforming 1997 world champion, Jacques Villeneuve.
Heidfeld had another more than solid season and scored points more often than not, eventually ending the season with ten top eight results to his name and 23 points - something that left him ninth in the standings. The highlight for Nick came in Hungary when he finished on the podium in third, other than that his next best result was a fourth place finish in Australia. Although he was put under more pressure after Villeneuve was eased out and replaced by Robert Kubica in the final six races, the change of team-mate didn't faze him and in many ways it helped push him to greater heights - and the team as a whole.
Moving into 2007, after eight seasons in Formula 1, Heidfeld finally reached the big time as he spearheaded an impressive sophomore season effort from BMW.
Pre-season testing had suggested BMW could prove surprise front runners to build on their debut year as fully fledged manufacturers, but while they were rarely quite on the pace of McLaren and Ferrari, they did enough to embarass reigning champions Renault and also Williams.
Heidfeld himself lived up to his reputation as ‘Quick Nick’ more obviously than ever, making the most of the best machine he has ever driven to qualify inside the top ten for every race, score two podiums - including a superb second in Canada – and finish inside the top five on nine occasions.
Retiring just three times – each time mechanical - Heidfeld ended the season with the mantle of 'best of the rest' behind the top four. Highlighted by second place in Canada and third in Hungary, his achievement is put into context by the fact that he managed 61 points in one season having taken seven to score 79.
It all means though that expectations for 2008 are higher than ever – BMW are an ambitious manufacturer and a first race win must be their ultimate aim...
That first race win did indeed come the way of the Bavarian marque just seven outings into the new campaign in Canada, but cruelly for Heidfeld – the man who had worked tirelessly to develop and hone BMW into a front-running contender right from day one – it was scored by team-mate Kubica rather than him, twelve months on from the Pole’s terrifying accident in the same race. Up on the rostrum afterwards, Nick was visibly deflated.
On face value it was far from a bad season for the man from Mönchengladbach, with four runner-up finishes taking his total career podium count to eleven and sixth place in the final drivers’ standings, only 15 points adrift of Kubica. Those 15 points, however, concealed a gap in performance between the two drivers that at times during the course of the season made it appear as if they were driving entirely different cars.
Heidfeld’s major bugbear in 2008 was his inability to warm the new Bridgestone Potenza tyres up sufficiently quickly in qualifying, meaning he struggled to pull a ‘hot’ lap out of the bag when it counted – consequently putting him at an instant disadvantage when it came to race day.
Whilst Kubica planted his F1.08 on the front three rows of the grid for twelve of the 18 races, on five occasions his more experienced German partner failed to make the top ten shoot-out at all, as the former International F3000 champion got the better of the man from Kraków a mere five times on Saturday afternoons. Around the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, the six-place grid difference between the pair would ultimately make all the difference.
That said, there were undoubted highlights, and if he suffered over a single lap, ‘Quick Nick’ certainly continued to live up to his moniker in the grands prix themselves, and his racecraft remains second-to-none, with most notably a series of breathtaking double passes in the rain-lashed British Grand Prix at Silverstone en route
to second place.
The regulation changes for 2009 have been designed to make overtaking easier, and the new aerodynamic rules and return to slick tyres should, in theory, play in Heidfeld’s favour.
When BMW Sauber produced a car that failed to set the world alight, however, it appeared that Sunday 8 June 2008, a bright summer’s day in Montreal, may go down as a watershed in the German's career. Although he took second place in race two of 2009 - underscoring team-mate Kubica's apparent pace from Melbourne - neither driver really troubled those at the front of the field again, with only a smattering of seventh and eighth places registering before F1 arrived in Belgium in late August.
At Spa-Francorchamps, work behind the scenes in Hinwil and Munich finally began to pay off, with both drivers featuring regularly in the points thereafter. Heidfeld wound up 13th overall, one place ahead of his much-vaunted team-mate, with 19 points, but the writing was already on the wall for both, as BMW decided that it was to follow Honda out of F1 at the end of the campaign.
While Kubica attracted offers from various teams before eventually deciding on Renault, Heidfeld was only really connected with a return to Williams or the second seat at Mercedes GP - which took over champions Brawn - unless Peter Sauber succeeded in keeping his eponymous outfit on the grid. In the end, it was Mercedes that called loudest for Heidfeld but, by the time he was headed for Brackley, a certain Michael Schumacher had been lured out of retirement to partner Nico Rosberg, leaving Nick to settle for the reserve driver role.
Carrying out limited third driver duties was not for the German and, while he remained at the Three Pointed Star for a while, the offer to conduct Pirelli's development programme ahead of its return to F1 in 2011 was enough to tempt him away from Brackley. Having turned out on a handful of occasions for the Italian concern, however, Sauber finally came calling, and Heidfeld was installed in the car previously occupied by Pedro de la Rosa for the final five races as a benchmark for the team's own development. The races, which came without any guarantee for 2011, were not entirely without reward, with the C29 improving through the second half of the season and yielding six points for the diminutive German.
Once again, however, he was passed over for 2011, with GP2 runner-up Sergio Perez - and Telmex backing - taking the seat alongside Kamui Kobayashi. With few opportunities to go elsehwere, a return to testing again appeared to provide Heidfeld's only means of remaining in the top flight for another season - until former team-mate Kubica suffered an horrific rallying accident that left him sidelined with serious arm and leg injuries.
Although there were several drivers touted for the drive in Kubica's absence - including the team's own reserves Bruno Senna and Romain Grosjean - a pace-setting run on his first day in the new R31 at Jerez cemented Heidfeld's claim and the German was signed to possibly his most potent F1 ride to date.
With Kubica's recovery period uncertain, the German knew that he had to make the most of his opportunity to guarantee a ride for 2012 but, despite scoring a podium finish in Malaysia second time out, both car and driver failed to shine thereafter. A best of seventh place in the nine races that followed left Heidfeld's seat in doubt as the season headed into its summer break, and he was duly replaced by Senna ahead of the Belgian Grand Prix on the other side. Despite that, his 34-point haul left him just one place, and three points, behind erstwhile team-mate Vitaly Petrov in the overall standings.
Although he remains one of the more experienced drivers on the market for 2012, Heidfeld's future appeared to lie elsewhere, with a move to sportscars with Rebellion Racing coming around in the absence of another 'supersub' role in F1.