So Heidi is back and the question of the moment is did he deserve the gig? Despite the ever prevailing driver-focused coverage, Formula One is most about the teams, meaning that comparing driver-talent is hugely difficult if they are in different cars, so the best way to gauge a driver is against his previous team-mates (albeit that drivers are not always treated equally, and sometimes one team will get the best out of a driver and another will not), so below is a record of how well Nick has performed in points against all his F1 team-mates. The numbers in brackets are how many races that season he was paired with that team-mate.
|2006||BMW Sauber||Heidfeld||13-||7||Jacques Villeneuve||(12)|
|2006||BMW Sauber||Heidfeld||10-||6||Robert Kubica||(6)|
|2007||BMW Sauber||Heidfeld||61-||39||Robert Kubica||(16)|
|2007||BMW Sauber||Heidfeld||0-||1||Sebastian Vettel||(1)|
|2008||BMW Sauber||Heidfeld||60-||75||Robert Kubica||(18)|
|2009||BMW Sauber||Heidfeld||19-||17||Robert Kubica||(17)|
The year at Prost is a pointless comparison. It was respectable to beat a future World Champion the season after at Sauber, although it was Räikkönen’s debut year (and only his third year of car-racing), after which Kimi was snapped up by McLaren. Massa was rubbish in his early days, so his later signing by and progress at Ferrari was a revelation. The trouncing by Frentzen was unfortunate, but Heinz-H. was an experienced well-regarded driver, with even Patrick Head subsequently conceding that mistakes were made in how the driver was managed at Williams. Little was proved either way at Jordan.
Heidfeld joined Williams in 2005, with less than great timing with the team’s last win to date being in 2004. He missed the last four races of the season, two after a testing accident, then two more after being hit by a motorbike when out cycling. Outscoring Webber at Williams looks decent, and might make us wonder how Heidi would have done last year if driving for RBR, but bearing in mind last season Mark had the fastest car, excellent reliability, and better luck than any other contender, he had no excuse for not winning the title, so the German beating him on points in ’05 was a good but not a great scalp.
It is difficult to know how much beating 1997 World Champion Villeneuve by a good margin counted for, but interesting to note that it was by about the same margin (12-6) that Button beat Jacques by at BAR back in 2003; it seems JV was about as miserable in his last year with Sauber as he was his last year at BAR.
The most obvious comparison has to be with the man NH is replacing, Kubica himself. In the 59 races together, Nick scored 150 to Robert’s 127. It is the only time he has been with a race-winning team, the only race-win in question being the 2008 Canadian GP. Typically, it was an incident strewn race, with Hamilton taking himself and Räikkönen out by driving into the Ferrari at the pit-exit having missed the red-light. After the last safety-car period, it was Heidfeld’s race to win as he was in the lead and fueled to the end, but, in what was obviously team-orders, he let Kubica by, the Pole being able to pull away from Nick’s heavy car, take advantage of the track-shortcut the Montreal pit-lane provides to make his last stop, and win the race ahead of Heidfeld. It gave the BMW Sauber team the 1-2 instead of just the win, but the agony on Nick’s face after the result is painful even to remember. It is fair to observe that Heidfeld had a lot of experience over his younger team-mate, hence it might be argued that Kubica had the greater potential even if a bit behind on points, but their last season together Kubica did not pull away but fell behind, and was very fortunate indeed it suited team-tactics for him to win that one race. (Special mention should also go to Nick for over-taking two-cars-at-once three times in 2008, including twice in the British GP.)
Frankly, Nick Heidfeld looked to be struggling against Kobayashi in the five races he deputised at Sauber in 2010. It is also fair to argue that who would not in those circumstances, and Nick did a passable job, although that his races got worse not better did not help the impression (I wonder if testing Pirellis then returning to Bridgestones may have been unhelpful).
Many people including Joe Saward and Fernando Alonso (although I often wonder how much of what the latter says is for effect) see much talent in Vitantonio Liuzzi, and there is a case that at the Red Bull teams and Force India, he has not had the chance to prove his abilities, but since it is possible he may not have shone given better opportunities, he is essentially unproven and not so experienced. It is strongly rumoured that Mr Kubica himself recommended the Italian, but in his hospital-slippers, would he really want to be replaced by the driver that previously outscored him? The better his replacement does, the less soon the team will want him back, and if Kubica can get back in the car to race this season, there will be less pressure on his immediate results if they are just plain glad to get shot of his stand-in. He hated when BMW gave Heidfeld attention at his expense, and signed with Renault expecting the number-one treatment (see this). Robert is a Formula One driver, and will propose the worst replacement that sounds a credible suggestion; obviously suggesting Luca Badoer would have been stretching it!
At 33, Nick is not a young driver, but by no means at an age a driver might not be expected to have several good years left. Recent history has taught us it is tough for any driver coming back after a career gap, which most of last season was, but with everyone having to get used to the new tyres (which have been developed a lot since he tested them last year), it might be more of a level playing field. I think it is highly unfair to dismiss him for not having won in 172 starts as, like Button for many years, he just has not been with the right teams at the right time. Of concern is he is one of those drivers (that are often unfairly overlooked because of it) that does not project attitude. At methodical teams like BMW Sauber or McLaren, that does not matter so much, but looking at how badly it ended when Räikkönen went to Ferrari, where the ability to broadcast enthusiasm, and pester anyone at the factory that will listen with what the driver wants from the car, is an important part of the equation, will quiet Nick be able to inspire Enstone as Robert looked able to? Modesty is an attractive trait, but is bad for a Formula One career. None the less, of the available options, quick Nick has to be the top choice. Judging by the results at BMW Sauber (and points win prizes), either Heidfeld is underrated, or Kubica is overrated.