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Nick Heidfeld on the Nordschleife

On Friday, Nick Heidfeld took the BMW Sauber F1.06 around the Nordschleife circuit at Nurburgring, as promised. You can see the video on the BMW Sauber website or (naturally) on YouTube.

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The car was shod with demonstration Bridgestones, which are slower than racing tires, and Nick had strict orders to take it easy but, even so, he looked to be trying pretty hard at some points. Not at the Karousel, however – he rounded that very carefully, understandably since it is very bumpy by modern F1 standards and the car would bottom out even with the ride height jacked up as far as it would go, as it was.

But there was a story a few days ago that he would not be allowed to take the Karousel at all so we should be grateful that he went round it at all. In the end, it was a fantastic sight and gave us a glimpse of how things might have been had F1 continued racing at the track through the intervening years.

Safety reasons have been the excuse for dropping so many circuits off the calendar but, in the Nordschleife’s case, there is no doubt that this was true. Even with the amount of money floating around in the sport today, it would be impossible to provide adequate marshaling and emergency coverage for the full 14 miles of the track. But that doesn’t mean we can’t dream.

Perhaps there should be an annual event of this type at the circuit, one to include the other teams as well; just demonstration runs by each car on its own, so that we could be reminded once again of the great circuit and its famous history combined with the sound and speed of modern F1.

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But, whatever happens, thank you to BMW for making this happen and for the video – a wonderful sight.

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BMW Sauber and the Nordschliefe

There is some irony in the fact that Sauber arrived in F1 after having achieved success in sportscar racing with Mercedes yet now are BMW’s effort in the sport. From the first, the team looked effective and produced some pretty good cars over the years; in BMW’s hands, however, they begin to look like winners.

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Nick Heidfeld in Bahrain

The progress made last year was excellent and it has continued this season with Nick Heidfeld surely ready to bring them their first victory soon. Robert Kubica has had some bad luck so far but will be in there punching with Nick before long. At the very least, BMW should achieve third in the constructor’s championship this year.

I have not had a favorite team since the sad demise of Brabham several years ago, but I think BMW can claim that spot now. Everything about the team is so darn impressive. Progress has been steady and unrelenting, without drama or fanfare, the cars are beautifully finished and perform beyond expectations, the drivers excel, with quick Nick proving me completely wrong in thinking his motivation lacking. What more could one ask for?

Yet there is more; have a look at the team’s website – it is as slick, professional and effective as their cars. And you will see that, on April 28, Nick Heidfeld will be driving the BMW F1.07 around the Nordschliefe at Nurburgring – the first time an F1 car has lapped the circuit in 31 years.

That alone is enough to make an F1 fan grateful to BMW, surely. Yes, it’s an exercise in public relations but what an effective one! To see how a modern F1 car handles the greatest of all circuits is the stuff of dreams.

Everything looks good at BMW now – they are almost certain to join Ferrari and McLaren as the leaders in 2007 and, if the champion does not emerge from one of those two teams, he will be driving a BMW. Here’s hoping that the team exceed Mario Theissen’s careful expectations and win many more than one GP this year.

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Taking Stock After Bahrain

A motor race does not a season make, to mangle a phrase. Three races in and Lewis Hamilton is superhuman, Massa has gone from hero to zero and back again, and poor Alonso and Raikkonen are bidding to become the forgotten men.

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The reality, of course, is a bit less dramatic than that – three of the drivers mentioned have had varying fortunes, one has not put a foot wrong as yet. As a result, we have a three-way tie for the lead of the championship with the fourth very close behind; which is great for the sport but nothing to get too excited about just yet.

It is true that Lewis Hamilton looks to be even better than we expected. He is quick, consistent and unflappable in the car, realistic and respectful out of it. It is hard to see how he could have made a better start to his career in F1 and all that we have seen so far points to his being a champion in the future.

But let us not get carried away – in two out of three races, Alonso has been the quicker McLaren driver and he is not going to despair because Lewis beat him in Bahrain. He will just work the harder to be fastest in future.

What is really impressive about the Alonso/Hamilton pairing is that I detect absolutely no needle between them at all. After the finish in Bahrain, Alonso went up to Hamilton to congratulate him and you could see he meant it. And Lewis continues to acknowledge that he is still learning and makes his respect for Alonso quite clear. For this year at least, they make a formidable team.

Things are a bit more complicated in the Ferrari team. Were there any justice in the world, this ought to be the year that Kimi Raikkonen walks away with the championship; he has served a hard apprenticeship, suffered more than his share of bad luck and demonstrated his speed again and again. Yet he finds himself with a teammate who wants to be number one and his old team suddenly come good with a car that performs as well as the Ferrari. Nothing comes easy for the Finn, it seems.

There is a new determination about Kimi this season, however, and it is no accident that he shares the championship lead with the McLaren drivers. In those races where Ferrari give him a car that can win, he will do so; in others he will take as many points as he can. Kimi wants the championship and no longer treats each race as a separate entity.

The roller coaster of Felipe Massa’s fortunes so far is indicative of his strengths and weaknesses. When things go well, Felipe can look unassailable; when they go badly, he tries too hard and makes mistakes. It has been said that Massa needs the support of his team to do well and it seems that he is getting it. Whether this means that Raikkonen receives that much less remains to be seen but I begin to suspect it.

So it is debatable that Ferrari are as well-knit a team this year as is McLaren and that could make all the difference at the end of the season if the championship remains close. Already McLaren have a lead in the constructors’ competition with a car that is not consistently as quick as the Ferrari – the difference is in the quality of the driving team.

If the champion this year is to be one of these four drivers, I think it has to be either Raikkonen or Alonso. Massa is too easily pressured into error and Hamilton has the patience to wait his turn. And, of the acknowledged “stars”, Alonso is the more likely winner since he is in the better team.

There is always the possibility that a wild card, perhaps in the shape of Nick Heidfeld, might be added to the mix, however. Now that would be really interesting…

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All Eyes on BMW

With Nick Heidfeld going fastest on the second day of testing in Bahrain, BMW continues to look the most likely team to upset the status quo of previous years. Consistently quick and now seemingly reliable, the F1.07 is obviously very good and team manager, Mario Theissen is having to work hard to keep the hype at a reasonable level, insisting that they are not yet in a position to challenge for the championship.

It is a sensible approach to the season; far better to exceed expectations in the actual races than to underperform after having set your sights too high. If the car races as well as it has tested, the results will do the talking for the team.

The big question mark must be over BMW’s choice of drivers. Heidfeld is certainly quick on occasion but can he maintain the speed throughout a full season? I cast doubt about Nick’s motivation in an earlier post and it remains to be seen whether he can prove me wrong.

And Robert Kubica is still an unknown quantity, raising hopes with his few race performances last year but not quite as quick as his teammate in testing. He’s an ugly blighter too but that never seemed to hold back Michael Schumacher.

In fact, a part of his looks that he shares with Michael and some other supreme sportsmen is that his eyes are too close together. Don’t laugh – this trait appears again and again in top athletes and might be a very visible sign of potential sporting prowess. Think of Bjorn Borg’s near-squint and Jochen Rindt.

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Well, okay, I mention this very tongue-in-cheek but it might be an interesting area for scientists to investigate – probably a more useful field of endeavor than chasing polar bears around the Arctic. And it does remind me that, in the sixties, there was a scientific study of F1 drivers to see whether they had anything in common that was different from the normal run of humanity.

They measured and tested and experimented but, in the end, could come up with only one difference: blink rate. It seems that you and I and most of humanity blink about four times a minute – but F1 drivers blink only about once every two minutes. Which may have something to do with levels of concentration but also shows that it’s all in the eyes.

With further investigation of this phenomenon, they might even be able to devise a test to see whether a driver will make it into the big time. That could put a stop to the usual ladder of karts, Formula Renault, F3, GP2 and so on, meaning that F1 could get them even younger.

Hmmm, on second thoughts, forget I ever said this…

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