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Nick Heidfeld - what a difference a year makes 03 Jun 2008

Nick Heidfeld (GER) BMW Sauber F1.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 6, Monaco Grand Prix, Practice Day, Monte-Carlo, Monaco, Thursday, 22 May 2008 Nick Heidfeld (GER) BMW Sauber F1.08 makes a pit stop. 
Formula One World Championship, Rd 4, Spanish Grand Prix, Race, Barcelona, Spain, Sunday, 27 April 2008 Nick Heidfeld (GER) BMW Sauber F1.08 has a puncture.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 6, Monaco Grand Prix, Race, Monte-Carlo, Monaco, Sunday, 25 May 2008 Nick Heidfeld (GER) BMW Sauber F1.08.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 6, Monaco Grand Prix, Qualifying Day, Monte-Carlo, Monaco, Saturday, 24 May 2008 Nick Heidfeld (GER) BMW Sauber F1 on the podium.
Australian Grand Prix, Rd 1, Race, Albert Park, Melbourne, Australia, Sunday, 16 March 2008

We may be just six races into the 2008 season but there are already clear winners and losers on the Formula One grid. In terms of teams, BMW Sauber are unequivocally on the rise, but while driver Robert Kubica has gone from strength to strength, his team mate Nick Heidfeld seems to be floundering.

In terms of statistics, the contrast between this year and last is surprising. When Heidfeld arrived in Montreal in 2007 he had gleaned 18 points from fives races and had a seven-point advantage over Kubica. And for the rest of the season, from his second place podium-finish in Canada to the closing race in Brazil, he kept ahead of his younger team mate.

Many believed this year would be a similar story, but so far the opposite has turned out to be true. This week Heidfeld heads to Canada with 20 points from six events - superficially, a reasonable tally. Kubica, however, is on 32.

Somewhere, somehow, Heidfeld has temporarily lost his footing, and as a result his 2008 prospects have taken a battering. Whereas Kubica has been resurgent and shown BMW Sauber’s F1.08 at its very best, Heidfeld has struggled to the point where the Polish driver has out-qualified him at every round and beaten him at all but one - the season opener in Australia, where Heidfeld took second place and Kubica failed to finish.

According to Heidfeld (and his team), his problems stem from his inability to warm up the latest Bridgestone tyres as quickly as his competitors. Unlike last year, the 2008 rubber certainly seems to favour the more aggressive driving style of Kubica, who as a result is able to get more heat into the tyres at a quicker rate. Heidfeld, with a smoother and more fluid technique, is struggling.

It’s a factor that is most significant over a single lap, hence it is in qualifying where Heidfeld is losing most ground - lost ground that in turn has a major impact on his race prospects. In Bahrain it was Kubica who scored BMW Sauber’s maiden pole, while Heidfeld fared no better than sixth. And it’s been similar tale at the other races. So far Heidfeld’s Saturday performances have earned him a grid slot no higher than fourth (and as low as 13th at Monaco), whilst Kubica has been no lower than fifth.

Heidfeld’s race pace - he set the fastest lap in Malaysia - and overtaking ability are as strong as ever, but the German is trapped in a situation whereby he struggles to shine on Sunday because of his poor pace the previous day. He has also been unluckier than most. In Malaysia, he fell foul of a first-lap collision with Trulli, while in Spain he was forced to refuel under a safety car, without an open pit lane, and the subsequent stop-go penalty relegated him out of the points.

So what can Heidfeld do to reverse the trend? With BMW Motorsport director Mario Theissen publically backing his driver and compatriot to bounce back, he certainly has the full support of his team. And just as Kubica and his engineers managed to gradually adapt his style and set-up to get more from the tyres last season, when they favoured his team mate’s driving style, so Heidfeld must now do the same.

In fact, he is already hard at work trying to do just that, well aware that he faces a stern test of his adaptability as a driver. The only question is can he do it in time to repeat his second-place Montreal finish from 2007 at this weekend’s Canadian Grand Prix, or will we have to wait a little longer to see Heidfeld delivering his full potential again? Watch this space.