Nick Heidfeld and BMW Sauber
The BMW Sauber team has been remarking on how Robert Kubica’s promotion to a race seat has sparked Nick Heidfeld into better performances. Everyone seems quite pleased with his new form but I think it gives pause for thought.
If it is truly Kubica who has spurred Heidfeld to try harder (and I’m not saying that it must be), one has to wonder what his problem was before the young Pole arrived. Often in individual races, we see a driver suddenly speed up when his hopes of a good finish improve through some unexpected event. The inevitable conclusion is that he was not going as fast as he could prior to the event and one has to think that a certain lack of motivation is involved somehow.
It may even be that this is the difference between the competent driver and the great. I do not recall ever seeing Michael Schumacher or Ayrton Senna suddenly put in faster laps as a response to their chances improving; they gave their all throughout a race, regardless of their position.
The occasional relaxation during a race is excusable at least – racing is hard work and only the superhuman can keep giving at maximum level indefinitely. But when a driver displays an unwillingness to really try throughout most of a season, it has to be worrying for the team manager. How is it possible to assess the progress you’re making with the car when the driver is not taking it to its limits? Is the driver really getting the results that the car deserves?
In Nick Heidfeld’s case, I believe the situation is more complex than a simple spur to greater effort resulting from fresh competition from a new teammate. Say what you like about Jacques Villeneuve, but I don’t think he was ever lacking in a fierce determination to compete to the best of his equipment’s ability. I would guess that the BMW’s poor performance before Jacques’ departure was a genuine case of the car not being good enough to compete against the best. And Heidfeld’s sudden improvement is more likely to have resulted from the many changes to the car actually making it better, rather than a fear of being shown up by a quicker teammate.
But I could be wrong. Mario Theissen, the team manager, seems to think that Heidfeld’s speed of late is all thanks to Kubica’s arrival and, if that is true, he should be concerned. Sure, it’s great to have a young driver like Kubica carving through the opposition (and making a few mistakes as well), but the team needs good input from an older and more experienced driver too. If that “wiser head” has a tendency to relax when the pressure is off, how reliable is his input?