Robert Kubica’s accident, in a small Italian rally, came only days after he had set the fastest time in the Valencia test session, and as soon as it became clear that Robert was going to survive, Renault – something of a misnomer these days, given that the company has no financial involvement with the team beyond supplying engines – had to give serious thought to a replacement. Everyone assumes that Kubica will one day return to Formula 1, but no one knows when that will be, and the likelihood is that it will not be in 2011.
Various names came up. Kimi Räikkönen, vaguely mentioned in connection with Renault last autumn, was not seriously considered, and has anyway said that he no longer has any interest in F1 (something already apparent, let’s face it, in the last two of his three years with Ferrari).
Then there was Tonio Liuzzi, highly rated by some, and on the street following Force India’s decision to sign Paul di Resta. Come to that, there was also Force India’s new test driver, Nico Hulkenberg, late of Williams, where he has been replaced by Pastor Maldonado and a good many Venezuelan bank notes. As 2010 – his rookie season – wore on, Hulkenberg impressed more and more, and no one doubts his innate talent and speed.
However, given that Renault’s other driver, Vitaly Petrov, has also but one season behind him, the likelihood was always that Eric Boullier and his colleagues would go for an experienced man to stand in for Kubica, and on that basis the logical choice was Robert’s erstwhile team-mate at BMW, Nick Heidfeld. Renault put him in the car for a day at Jerez – and he set the quickest time. To no one’s great surprise, Boullier swiftly announced that Heidfeld had got the job.
A very easy man to underestimate, Nick. He may not have the blinding speed of a Vettel, but in the BMW days he had a habit of finishing in the top six in the World Championship, and his talents were highly rated not only by Mario Theissen but also – after a single season, 2005, with Williams – by Patrick Head, no less.
At the beginning of ’06 I asked Patrick if he had been sorry to lose Heidfeld to BMW. “Very much so,” he said. “We were very impressed with him, and not just in the car, but also in the way he conducts himself generally. As you know, he doesn’t ‘high profile’ himself, but he’s a very tough character. His interaction with the engineers – with the team in general – was extremely professional at all times.
“All right, most of the time Mark [Webber] was able to out-qualify him, but in racing conditions Nick was outstanding – over the season I think he made up 20 places between the start and end of the first lap, whereas Mark was actually in the negatives. Now you could say that was because Mark over-qualified the car’s rightful position – which undoubtedly he did on occasion – but what you could also see was that Nick always seemed able to work out where to be on the track at the first corner, so that he would get through OK. Equally, he was sometimes quite forceful on the opening lap, going round the outside of people, and so on.
“A good lad, Nick, and a very good driver, I think. We didn’t blame him for accepting the offer from BMW, but we were sad to lose him…”
Quite an endorsement from a man not given to hyperbole when discussing racing drivers. It goes without saying that Renault will desperately miss Kubica – in every sense – this season, but Heidfeld, unequivocally leading an F1 team for the first time, will be far more of a factor than many expect.