Tuesday, February 15, 2011
Nick Heidfeld’s impending elevation from F1 discard to Renault lead driver provides the latest chapter in a career that has seemed all but over on numerous occasions.
Dating back to his sacking from Sauber at the close of the 2003 season the German has faced career oblivion no fewer than four times. While it is remarkable that he now finds himself with a top drive for 2011, what is even more remarkable is that a man with his proven record could have faced this prospect at all.
So has it been performance or perception that has lead to the ups and downs in Heidfeld’s career? Given that an F1 driver is judged first and foremost against his team mate, let’s look at the raw numbers of his career, against those of his various team mates.
Qualifying vs. team mates: 91-81
Points vs. team mates: 219-203
Podiums vs. team mates: 12-11
Wins vs. team mates: 0-1
Poles vs. team mates: 1-1
Heidfeld’s record stacks up remarkably well when you consider the quality of drivers he has had on the other side of the garage: Raikkonen, Massa, Frentzen, Pantano, Glock, Webber, Villeneueve, Kubica, Vettel and Kobayashi. With the possible exception of Pantano, all are proven F1 drivers, with three world champions thrown in for good measure.
However one notable feature of Heidfeld’s team mates is that many were rookies when paired with the German. Let’s take a look at his qualifying record – the default barometer of a driver’s ultimate pace - if we divide these statistics into his record against rookies and non-rookies. For the purpose of this analysis a rookie is defined as a driver competing in their first full season of Formula One.
Qualifying vs. team mates: 51-28
Against non rookies
Qualifying vs. team mates: 37-56
Quite clearly Heidfeld hasn’t had it all his way when up against experienced drivers. So has his problem been the perception that when he has beaten his team mates it wasn’t by a big enough margin? McLaren’s hiring of rookie Kimi Raikkonen over Heidfeld for 2002 certainly lends some weight to this theory, particularly when you consider Heidfeld out qualified and out scored the Finn in their season together.
Given the sometimes vast differences in machinery, driver performance will always be viewed subjectively. Whilst undoubtedly being quick, there are few standout performances from his career to date that have made people sit up and really take notice of him. A driver who puts in one stunning performance for three mediocre ones will probably appear on more team’s shopping list than a consistent performer like Heidfeld.
Much is made of his record of 172 Grand Prix starts without a win, but as the man himself recently pointed out, only a single one of those races has seen a team mate take the top step of the podium. Kubica’s win at the 2008 Canadian Grand Prix could so easily have been Heidfeld’s had the team not asked him to let Kubica through mid race. It is ironic that Heidfeld’s career lifeline and potential shot at the big time now come at the expense of Kubica.
If we assume that Kubica will be back in 2012 and Petrov’s Russian connections will ensure he remains, then Heidfeld must grab the Renault opportunity with both hands if his career is to continue in any meaningful way. If he is able to convincingly lead the team at the sharp end of the grid then he stands a very good chance of landing a drive elsewhere for 2012 and beyond.
Will Heidfeld ever win a Grand Prix? He certainly has the talent, now all he needs is a car to deliver. A black and gold Renault would do very nicely.
Labels: Formula One