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Opportunity knocks

Misfortune for a former teammate has opened the door for Nick Heidfeld to make a long-awaited breakthrough

by Matthew Clayton

After 172 Grand Prix starts, Nick Heidfeld’s Formula One career appeared to be over. Called in late last year at Sauber to replace Spaniard Pedro de le Rosa, the 33-year-old did a solid if unspectacular job, and with the Swiss team having signed Mexican Sergio Perez for 2011, Heidfeld was out of a job – and perhaps out of the sport for good.

Then, as has happened so often to the German over his 11-year career, fate played its hand. On February 6, Robert Kubica crashed while competing in a rally in Italy, throwing Renault’s plans into disarray. The team needed an experienced hand to develop the car until Kubica’s return. Heidfeld fitted the bill.

A week later, the German tested for the team at Jerez in Spain, and by February 16 he was named as Kubica’s replacement.

Heidfeld isn’t entirely comfortable about how his lifeline came about – he and Kubica were teammates at BMW-Sauber -- but he knows he now has the opportunity of a lifetime in a car that many F1 insiders feel will be a challenger in 2011.

“This season, there was nothing proper left, so that is what makes this (opportunity) so special,” Heidfeld said at Albert Park on Thursday.

“Unfortunately it’s because Robert had his big crash, but on the other side, because it was so unexpected, it’s even more exciting for me.

“I know it’s definitely a huge chance. There were other seasons where I didn’t know for a while where I would drive, but at least there were still possibilities like with Jordan (in 2004) and Williams (in 2005).

“I’ve always had high motivation, but if anything, this motivates you even more. You’ve been nearly on the sidelines, and you realise how big this chance hopefully will be.”

Sheer statistics seem to indicate Heidfeld is the ultimate F1 nearly-man. No driver has scored more points in his career (225) without a race victory. No driver has ever recorded more second-place finishes – eight – without stepping onto the top spot on the podium. And no driver has stood on the podium as many times (12) without spraying the victory champagne.

But it’s difficult to judge his career by numbers alone.

During his 172 starts, just one of his teammates – Kubica in Canada in 2008 – has ever won a race. Of those teammates, only Kubica (2008), Heinz-Harald Frentzen (2003) and Mark Webber (2005) have ever out-scored Heidfeld over a season.

Heidfeld had the better of Kimi Raikkonen at Sauber in 2001, Felipe Massa at the same team a year later, and Kubica in both 2007 and 2009. So where does he stand? Heidfeld has never genuinely had a race-winning car at his disposal, and while Red Bull and Ferrari appeared to be the cream of the 2011 crop in off-season testing, Renault was thought to be on the next tier.

The typically reserved Heidfeld breaks into a grin when asked if this is the year to end his unwanted run of outs, but isn’t getting ahead of himself just yet. “I don’t really have a clear feeling because it’s more difficult than ever to know,” he said of Renault’s pre-season testing pace.

“Some days (in testing), I’d be thinking we were quite strong, and other moments, I was not so sure. It was a bit up and down, and we’ve tried to analyse why. We have some ideas to solve some of the problems we’ve had, but there’s been no more testing since then. So we will find out here where we stand.”

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