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Exclusive interview – BMW Sauber’s Heidfeld

Dubbed ‘Quick Nick’ by his fans, Nick Heidfeld is one of quieter characters in the Formula One paddock. And it was by quietly plugging away at his qualifying problems this season that Heidfeld managed to turn things around and retain his BMW Sauber seat. This year has certainly tested his mettle, but after bouncing back with aplomb and with the team confident of a more consistent title challenge in 2009, he’s in the right place at the right time. Now he just needs to survive his first winter on the ski slopes…

Q: Nick, the 2008 season seems to have been quite a rollercoaster ride for you, both in terms of your performance and probably your emotions. What conclusions have you drawn from the 18 races? Nick Heidfeld: Honestly, I’ve taken away quite a lot, although it is difficult to express that in a few words. The season started quite well, with no clouds on the horizon, and then I started to have problems in qualifying – and to sort that out took me longer than I expected. But in the end, I managed to get over it and that left me with a very positive feeling, as I was able to analyse the problem and put it behind me, together with the team. So I had a quite good end of season. Although it was not great in terms of results, in terms of maximizing the potential of the car it was – and that was very satisfying.

Q: Sometimes you seemed a bit overshadowed by your team mate Robert Kubica’s pace and performance. How would you respond to that? NH: Yes, clearly. We had a car that at some stages of the season was capable of finishing in the front or on the podium, and Robert was in the position to fight for the championship for quite some time. And that obviously brought a lot of attention for him, and for me to be struggling at the same time obviously didn’t look so good. But if you look towards the end of the season I turned things around. This bouncing back was quite satisfying for me, especially the way I managed the situation. Okay, first you shouldn’t get into such a situation for sure, but then to get out of it and not to do anything stupid while you are in it. It is easy if you start at the back to say: ‘I will risk everything in the first corner’, or try something that you normally would not do. But I didn’t and I scored good points from the bad qualifying positions that I had.

Q: You’ve admitted that you had some qualifying issues during the season, but in the last two races the problem seemed to have switched to Robert. Any reasons you were able to hold the performance, whereas Robert was hit hard by a lack of pace? NH: No, I have no explanation for that. Why it suddenly went so negative for Robert I don’t know, but I think it shows how difficult the season was, not only for me. I would guess that the main reason was the tyres. We really had a very small window this year and it was really difficult to maximize our potential.

Q: The F1.08 was clearly falling behind its rivals over the second part of the season. What is your explanation for that? NH: I think it was mainly that a couple of our developments didn’t work. We developed the car pretty well in the wind tunnel, we had some pretty good ideas. The development speed, reproducing parts and the research was normal, but the outcome at the end on the track was not as planned.

Q: Robert expressed his dissatisfaction with the performance of the car quite audibly, but you never did. Were you more satisfied than him? NH: No, definitely not. I think that if I had been in his situation of fighting for the championship – albeit with a relatively small chance – I would have also raised more concerns. But in the situation I was in, it would not have made sense.

Q: Throughout all the rumour mongering concerning your 2009 drive, you stayed surprisingly calm. Was it because you knew a long time before it was made public that you would stay with the team? NH: For sure, it was a difficult time for me. On the other hand, I tried to be realistic both to myself and to the outside world. I tried to explain how things work. If I screwed up, I said it very clearly. I think sometimes people search for a million explanations, but I tried to stay realistic. My main focus was to solve my problems, because I knew that if I could turn things around my future would be clear – and that is how it turned out in the end. The simple truth is if you are quick in Formula One you stay, if you are slow, you’re out. And I did not know if I would stay with the team a long time before it was announced. I did not know at all if my future was with BMW Sauber. Obviously I did hope, but I was pretty sure that if it would not be with BMW it would be with another team.

Q: BMW Sauber have backed KERS strongly. As a driver, how do you see this new development? Light drivers like yourself will have an advantage. Can you explain why? NH: It might be that light drivers have an advantage next year with KERS. I don’t think it’s about minimum weight, as even with the heavier drivers the cars are below the minimum weight, but it might be an advantage as you have more weight that you can shift around the car. But that is something that we have to find out.

Q: 2008 was something of a dress rehearsal for BMW Sauber, while in 2009 they want to play a major part in the fight for the championship. What is the development status of the F1.09? How much of an insight do you already have? NH: I think that compared to many other teams it looks like we have already produced quite an advanced B-car, with next year’s regulations of front and rear wings. And I have tested KERS at this week’s Barcelona test and used slick tyres. So I hope that will give us an advantage for next year by gathering more information than the other teams. But then again, I expect next year’s car to be completely different. We did this test with the old ’08 car with modifications, and again my guess is that the F1.09 will be a distinctively different car.

Q: What are your private plans over the coming winter months? NH: Obviously there is a bit more testing going on in Jerez over the upcoming weeks. For Christmas, I will go back to Germany for a Christmas party with my fan club. And then comes the great part – we will spend the holidays there and I plan to do my first proper skiing. Until now, I was not allowed to ski because of the contract with my manager. But as from next year on, I will have a new manager and that gives me the freedom to hit the slopes. I don’t know exactly how it will be, but I have already been to winter destinations and I imagine winter holidays whilst being able to ski will be one of the best holidays imaginable.