It might not have come about in the most desirable of circumstances in the wake of the serious injuries sustained by Robert Kubica in his high-speed rallying accident earlier this month, but on the eve of the F1 2011 World Championship, Nick Heidfeld has the chance of his lifetime – and it is thoroughly well-deserved.
It was confirmed by Lotus Renault GP yesterday (Wednesday) that Heidfeld will stand in for his former BMW-Sauber team-mate Kubica until the Pole is fit enough to return from the broken arm and leg and most worryingly of all the partially-severed hand that he suffered after a piece of guardrail travelled right the way through the Skoda Fabia he was sharing with co-driver Jakub Gerber on the Ronde di Andora Rally in Italy [see separate story – click here
Although he has stated his intent to rejoin the grand prix grid before the season is out, the likelihood is that the 26-year-old will be forced to miss the entire 2011 campaign – a crying shame for one of the most talented and highly-rated drivers in the field, and one who appeared to be on the verge of a major breakthrough this year. For Heidfeld, who has admitted his sadness at Kubica's misfortune, it is little short of manna from heaven.
The German was sitting on the sidelines and preparing to launch a second career of-sorts in tin-tops when Lotus Renault GP managing director Eric Boullier made the announcement that he was looking for a solid, experienced competitor to replace Kubica, a safe pair of hands and one ideally with some prior knowledge of the new Pirelli tyres. Nick's ears must have pricked up – although his name had not been mentioned, he ticked all the boxes and fit the bill to perfection. And before long, his name was
being mentioned. Repeatedly.
Even before he had sat inside the cockpit of the R31, Heidfeld was being publicly touted as the 'favourite' to clinch the seat by Boullier – and his outstanding testing performance at Jerez in southern Spain sealed the deal beyond all reasonable doubt. Not only was the 33-year-old fast – fast enough to set the best time of the day ahead of no fewer than four F1 World Champions – but his keen analytical approach and the precise nature of his feedback left Renault hugely impressed, and all in a car that had been designed for two drivers considerably taller than him. The team had got its man.
He might have gained more of a reputation as a 'super-sub' of late – fulfilling the role of Mercedes Grand Prix reserve, Pirelli's official test-driver and a late-season replacement for Pedro de la Rosa at Sauber in 2010 – but Heidfeld did not earn himself the 'Quick Nick' moniker for nothing. Indeed, despite no prior testing, he far from disgraced himself in relation to Kamui Kobayashi over the final five races of last year and twice finished inside the points in a wholly unfamiliar car. It may have gone relatively unnoticed by fans, but the sport's insiders – Boullier amongst them – took note.
Heidfeld might similarly have developed an image as the paddock's quiet man, speedy but silent – but he can also be silent and very, very deadly. Malaysia, 2009 was just such an example. In torrential conditions that ultimately led to the grand prix being stopped before its time, he sagely steered his BMW-Sauber through the monsoon to claim a superb second place. As his rivals either panicked and pitted or else spun off, Nick kept his head and appeared up on the podium afterwards almost by stealth. What's more, that was race 30 of a record-breaking run of 41 consecutive chequered flags.
A bold late switch to intermediates at Spa-Francorchamps the previous season had also yielded an unanticipated rostrum finish as he pinched third position – what would later become second – on the very last lap. And let us not forget, for all those who contend that Heidfeld mustn't be as good as Kubica as it was the latter who took BMW's sole grand prix victory in Canada in 2008, that Robert was helped significantly along the way by Nick – on a much heavier fuel load – playing the team game and dutifully yielding to his lighter, two-stopping team-mate. Over the balance of their 57 races alongside one another, the points total read 150-137 in Heidfeld's favour, and in two of their three full seasons together, it was the German who placed higher in the championship.
At Williams, too, the man from Mönchengladbach more than held his own against Mark Webber, a driver who has since gone on to prove himself as a genuine title contender with Red Bull Racing. Heidfeld tallied more podiums than Webber in 2005, achieved the Grove-based concern's only pole position that year and was ahead on points until a testing crash and subsequent cycling accident brought an early end to his challenge. It is indisputable that Nick has invariably got everything out of the machinery at his disposal that it has been able to give – and sometimes substantially more.
In truth, his fortunes in F1 were shaped all the way back in 2001, when following a meteoric rise up through the ranks in the junior formulae and promising performances as a grand prix rookie – and despite a long association with both McLaren and Mercedes – he was overlooked by the Woking-based outfit in favour of his Sauber team-mate Kimi Raikkonen in a move that launched Kimi's career but arguably sunk Nick's. Raikkonen went on to claim 18 race victories and the 2007 drivers' crown with Ferrari; Heidfeld is still looking to break his duck.
A decade on, though, he finally has his chance to right that wrong, with a car that on testing form at least, could just be the dark horse of the campaign and a bona fide
threat to the likes of anticipated front-runners Red Bull Racing, Ferrari and McLaren.
Yes, he may not be the most dynamic or colourful character in the paddock – and let's not beat about the bush, there are rather too many who waste no opportunity to sell themselves or brag about their potential – but he is, as defending world champion Sebastian Vettel has acknowledged, honest, dependable and, most importantly of all, exactly what Renault needs right now. He will get the job done.
Nick Heidfeld is one of the sport's good guys, and a bloody good racer to-boot. All of us here at Crash.net
wish him the very best for F1 2011 and beyond.