Nick Heidfeld has accepted the role of test and development driver for Pirelli tyres, hoping that having a head start in understanding the tyre will make him an attractive proposition to an F1 team as a race driver for 2011.
The 33 year old German has been a rather forlorn looking reserve driver for Mercedes this season. With no on track testing allowed during the season, his role has been largely on the simulator and behind the scenes at the factory and the race track.
The Pirelli opportunity involves him driving the 2009 Toyota car, not the car which was designed and built for 2010 but never raced after the Japanese giant pulled out. The test programme, due to start straight away, will be extensive and will help Pirelli develop casings and a set of four tyre compounds for its return to the sport in 2011. After an absence of almost 20 years, the company plans to take a conservative approach and Heidfeld’s experience will come in very useful in finding the right compounds.
Toyota are running the car, with mechanics and engineers still employed at the old factory in Cologne. In total there will be 18 Toyota staff at the test in Mugello, where the car is running white and without logos. Toyota engineers are under contractual obligation not to share any Bridgestone technical data with the Pirelli engineers.
“We have a policy of complete impartiality, so we did not want to favour any existing team,” said Pirelli competition boss Paul Hembery. “The Toyota was the perfect solution, as it is a contemporary racing machine with proven speed and reliability but without links to any of the manufacturers currently competing in Formula One.”
As we have seen this year with Michael Schumacher’s problems at Mercedes, understanding how to get the best from the tyres is a vital part of being fast and this will be especially true on what will otherwise be a level playing field with unknown tyres next season.
That said, Heidfeld struggled with front tyre warm up in his BMW Sauber days, compared with Robert Kubica so his style of driving, gentle on the tyres, will need to be taken into account by the Pirelli engineers.
Mercedes motorsport boss Norbert Haug said, “It would be great to see Nick in a competitive
car in next year’s Formula One World Championship and I am sure his leading role in the new tyre development, in addition to his skills, puts Nick in a good position for the remaining seats in 2011.”
Heidfeld was a Mercedes young driver and thought he was on a fast track to a McLaren seat in the early 2000s, but Mercedes and McLaren took Kimi Raikkonen instead. Heidfeld then went to BMW, but came back to Mercedes in the reserve driver role this year. It will be interesting to see whether one of the Mercedes engined teams takes him next year or whether another forward thinking team decides to give him a run.
Sauber ran him during two separate stints and in the most recent one were not pleased when he suddenly speeded up by four tenths of a second per lap when the replaced Jacques Villeneuve with Robert Kubica in 2006. Peter Sauber felt that he should have been putting everything on the table all the time.
But if testing remains very limited next season, then having Heidfeld’s experience, even for one season, would be vastly preferable to running a rookie, so you may see him get a second chance.
He’s strong on engineering and his performances alongside Kubica showed that if the car is set up to his liking he can be very fast. The problem was that he and Kubica wanted quite different things from a car.
“The team has always said that they would not stand in my way if such a chance arose and they have kindly allowed me to take up this exciting new role,” said Heidfeld.
Pirelli has also taken the smart move of hiring the hugely experienced Peter Grzelinski and James Gresham to manage the tyre logistics. They have been responsible for this role with Bridgestone throughout their time in F1, stretching back to 1997 and have forgotten more about moving tyres around the world and getting them serviced properly at race tracks than most people have ever learned.
Mercedes has released Heidfeld from his contract and say they will not rush to appoint a new reserve driver. But they will need someone to cover them in Spa in two weeks. Perhaps Mercedes DTM driver Paul di Resta, who is contracted to Force India and has recent F1 experience, can be on standby, otherwise they may go with someone like Jamie Green, who is also a front line star in DTM and who has long deserved a chance in F1.
But I guess with Mercedes being an all German team, they may also be thinking of a German reserve driver.