Nick Heidfeld - hidden home hero 21 Jul 2004
Is time running out for the talented German driver?
The German Tifosi will descend in their tens of thousands on Hockenheim this weekend to worship their national hero, Michael Schumacher. But in the melee that surrounds the six times World Champion it tends to be forgotten that this is also the home Grand Prix for other drivers.
Not Ralf Schumacher of course - at least not this year. Michael's younger brother is sitting out the rest of the season after damaging his vertebrae in a heavy collision at the United States Grand Prix, and when he returns here it will be wearing Toyota race overalls. But further down the order there is another national star - Jordan's Nick Heidfeld, who hails originally from Monchengladbach, which was also Heinz-Harald Frentzen's home town.
The similarities between the two former team mates, both of who drove for Sauber last year, do not end there. Like Frentzen, Heidfeld's Formula One career is in danger of never delivering on his obvious promise. He is an enormously talented driver with a very intelligent approach to racing, but at 27 years of age and with 77 Grand Prix starts under his belt, his career is already moving into its 'middle-age'. Can he overcome the shortcomings of this year's less-than-competitive Jordan and find his way back to the sharp end of the grid?
Like the Schumachers and Frentzen, Heidfeld came up through karting, before moving into Formula Ford and then Formula Three. His natural speed brought him early recognition, taking eight victories from nine starts in the 1994 German Formula Ford 1600 class and then becoming national F3 champ in 1997. In 1999 his big break came when he was signed up as a McLaren test driver, a role he quickly proved himself a natural for. At the same time he continued to contest Formula 3000, driving his way to the '99 Championship.
His Formula One race debut was a different matter, however, driving for the already ailing Prost team in 2000. It was a miserable season for the young German as he failed to finish 10 times and was disqualified from the European Grand Prix before he had even set a qualifying time after his car was found to be underweight.
For 2001 he moved to Sauber and his results began to improve immediately. He took a brilliant third place early on in the season at the Brazilian Grand Prix, while highly rated team mate Kimi Raikkonen span off, and he was frequently in the points throughout the rest of the season, finishing the Drivers' Championship in a highly impressive eighth place with twelve points. (Raikkonen, in his debut season, ended up 10th).
But while Raikkonen was given a full race drive by McLaren, Heidfeld found himself left at Sauber for 2002, now joined by Felipe Massa. Highlight of the season was a fourth place finish at the Spanish Grand Prix. And 2003 proved another disappointing year, the Sauber offering decent reliability en route to a succession of lower order finishes. Solitary highlight was 5th at the United States Grand Prix. At the end of the season he parted company with Sauber, along with team mate and compatriot Heinz-Harald Frentzen, the pair replaced by Felipe Massa and Giancarlo Fisichella.
For 2004 Heidfeld has found himself with Jordan, trying hard to prove that he's still got what it takes to move back to a more competitive team. His season has been marred by poor reliability so far, with five failures in 11 races, but he's also managed to give the Silverstone team three much-needed points with eighth in Canada and a very well-driven seventh at Monaco.
Heidfeld knows that the clock is ticking - and where better to make an impression than at his home Grand Prix.