In a contrast with the previous driver on ‘Where Are They Now’, Colombian Juan Pablo Montoya, Nick Heidfeld is one of the many Formula One drivers to hail from his native Germany.
However, ‘Quick Nick’ can claim to be the first member of the ‘new wave’ of Germans that have flooded F1 in the 21st Century, having made his debut in the year 2000.
In order to take his place on the grid alongside the Schumacher brothers and Heinz-Harald Frentzen, Heidfeld had to cut his teeth in the International F3000 Series (the precursor to GP2).
With support from Mercedes’ Norbert Haug and West cigarettes, Heidfeld was placed in a competitive car straight away for the 1998 season.
At the final round at the Nürburgring, Heidfeld lost pole position due to a fuel irregularity and couldn’t recover his title bid in the race. Instead, it was, yes – Juan Pablo Montoya, who clinched the trophy.
Not to be deterred in 1999, Nick dominated the season with four wins and seven podiums in ten races. He also participated in test sessions for the West and Mercedes backed McLaren team, but found a full-time race seat at Alain Prost’s team.
Unfortunately, 2000 was the worst possible time to be behind a wheel of a Prost – the package provided for Heidfeld and team-mate Jean Alesi was woefully subpar. Neither driver scored any points, and suffered the humiliation of an inter-team collision at the Austrian Grand Prix.
The German packed his bags at the first opportunity and joined Sauber-Petronas. His team-mate was an unknown Finn by the name of Kimi Räikkönen.
The pairing were surprisingly competitive and amassed a combined 21 points, enough to pip Jordan and BAR to fourth in the Consturctors’. Heidfeld’s drive to third place at Interlagos, Brazil proved especially crucial for himself and the team.
Räikkönen’s excellent rookie season clinched him a seat at McLaren, but the steady handed Nick remained number one at Sauber for 2002. He proved superior to his team-mate on points again (this time he being debutant Felipe Massa) but his best result was just a fourth in Spain.
Nick was not to know at the time, but the fact that Massa and Räikkönen would become successful Ferrari team-mates together is now one of the many ‘what ifs’ that hangs over his career.
In 2003, Frentzen took full ownership of the second Sauber seat from Massa, thus creating an all-Mönchengladbach team. Experience overcame youth by a 2:1 points ratio (HHF 13pts, NH 6pts) but Sauber claimed a hard earned 6th in the Constructors’ in a very evenly matched midfield.
Eddie Jordan’s journey at the top was coming to an end by 2004, but he gave Heidfeld a reprieve with very few vacancies available. The German showed his gratitude by surviving races of attrition at Monaco and Canada, taking three points.
Heidfeld joined Mark Webber in a new-look Williams-BMW the following year. Podiums at Sepang, Monaco and the Nürburgring raised the bar for the German, but in typical fashion, he couldn’t expand his repertoire for the remainder of the season.
The infamous exclusion of Michelin cars at Indy, a throbbing headache sustained in a practice crash and a cycling accident removed Heidfeld from six Grands Prix. At the end of the season, BMW abandoned Williams in exchange for re-branding the Sauber team.
The Bavarian manufacturer wasted no time in transferring Heidfeld with them, while former World Champion Jacques Villeneuve was able to have his Sauber contract carried over into 2006.
The Canadian was no match for Heidfeld, who foraged into the points more often than not. BMW grew impatient with Villeneuve and chucked him out after the German Grand Prix.
Polish starlet Robert Kubica took his place, but Heidfeld took a podium at his new team-mate’s first ever start in a rain-affected race in Hungary. Kubica claimed a rostrum spot all of his own at Monza, but Heidfeld closed off his season with 23 points.
BMW were primed for a full assault for success in 2007, but Ferrari and McLaren were one step ahead of everyone else in a ding-dong title fight.
Heidfeld was the best of the rest with his fifth place in the Drivers’ Championship, with his best result being a runners-up spot at Canada (his third career second place). The fallout of the highly controversial ‘Spygate’ incident saw McLaren disqualified from the Constructors’, promoting BMW-Sauber to second.
Quick Nick kept his standards high in 2008, but sadly for him, the plucky Pole Kubica was even better in BMW-Sauber’s strongest campaign. Of the four rueful second places Heidfeld earned, none would have hurt more than at the incredible Canadian Grand Prix.
Just a year after his horror accident at the same circuit, Kubica followed a smart pit-stop strategy to deny Nick that elusive win. Whilst understandably disappointed, the German soon saluted his team-mate for his achievement.
From 2009 onwards, Heidfeld’s F1 career began to wind down. BMW got their development all wrong in the new regulation era and slumped to 6th in the Constructors’ table.
Heidfeld scored another second place at the 2009 Malaysian Grand Prix, but only collected half points with monsoon conditions bringing an early end to proceedings.
In 2010, the Sauber team reverted to its original form as BMW called it quits. Heidfeld signed up for testing duties with Mercedes AMG and Pirelli tyres as he was not retained by the Swiss team. However, they called him back for five races – enough time for him to score a handful of points.
In a cruel series of events, an otherwise stranded Heidfeld took over his old team-mate Kubica’s position at Lotus Renault GP. The Pole suffered a serious arm injury whilst rally driving and required a long lay-off.
Heidfeld officially broke an unwanted record in Malaysia by earning his 13th podium without a career win, one more than 1980s driver Stefan Johansson.
Unfortunately for the mostly dignified Nick, his life in F1 came to an explosive end – his car’s engine burst into flames at Hungary and Lotus-Renault terminated his contract afterwards.
Since then, he has competed mostly in the WEC with Rebellion Racing, with brief dabbles in Australian V8 Supercars and the Porsche Supercup.
With Rebellion, Heidfeld has contributed towards a fourth place at Le Mans (2012), a podium at São Paolo (2013) and several privateer team awards. It was a long wait to return to La Sarthe as, back in 1999, his entry to the 24 Hour race was withdrawn by Mercedes-Benz after a scary airbourne accident for Mark Webber in the sister car.
Heidfeld has made a return to open-wheel racing by signing up to take part in the inaugural all-electric powered Formula E Series. He is driving alongside French team-mate Stéphane Sarrazin for the Venturi GP team.
Nick very nearly won the very first ‘ePrix’ at Beijing two months ago himself, but came to blows with his former employer’s son, Nicolas Prost.
Heidfeld attempted to take the inside line for the last corner on the last lap, but Prost inexplicably turned into him. This sent Heidfeld careering towards the tyre barrier and off the ground briefly. Luckily, neither driver was hurt.
A potentially highly volatile situation was prevented as Heidfeld accepted Prost’s apology – in time for their return as team-mates at Rebellion Racing seven days later!
The two month wait for the second Formula E race will come to an end next weekend at Malaysia. Heidfeld is already playing catch-up, but the 37-year old will surely threaten for wins if he is left to his own devices.
Eoin Harmon, Pundit Arena.