Exclusive interview with Nick Heidfeld
A 12-year veteran of Formula 1, German Nick Heidfeld has this year signed up to a new challenge in the World Endurance Championship with top Lola LMP1 privateer team Rebellion Racing. After a strong showing at Sebring and finishing as the fastest petrol-powered car after Friday's practice sessions at Spa, he spoke to Motorsport.com about this exciting new chapter in his career.
How has the Spa weekend gone for you so far?
I enjoyed Sebring and I'm enjoying Spa, but the main thing for me was to do Le Mans again.
“Free practice was good: we were the quickest petrol car, which is always our target, because there's no way to beat the diesels. This is our first race with the new 2012 Lola LMP1 coupé, having tested it in Valencia after Sebring. It's reasonable – we're not yet as much on the limit as we were with the old car. We sorted some things out in Valencia, but there's definitely a lot left to try in terms of setup to make it better. Overall, though, it's not bad at all. Everything depends on the weather: the forecast is quite bad, especially for race day on Saturday. I haven't driven this car in the wet yet, so that would be something new!”
How did the deal with Rebellion happen?
“I got in contact with James Robinson, an engineer I knew from my time with Jordan in F1 who is now the engineer here – simple as that!”
Were you happy with how the Sebring 12 Hours went?
“It was very important, as it was my first race with the team and I had to get used to the traffic – something I'm not used to in F1! It's not so bad here in Spa – there are fewer cars on the grid and the circuit is longer. Everything was new for me in Sebring, including the traffic, the driver changes and the night driving. I have done Le Mans once, back in 1999, but that was a long time ago!”
That year, how did you feel when you saw the Mercedes driven by your team-mate Dumbreck flipping through the air on the Mulsanne straight?
“It was one of the worst moments of my career – I was very relieved to find out that Peter was okay. It definitely came as a surprise, as I felt no hint that the car would do that during the stint I drove before Peter got in. After the problems with Mark Webber's car in practice, we took some measures which we thought were enough to fix the problem, but obviously they weren't. Yet I've no issue coming back to sportscars now, as the rules have made the cars much safer by reducing the chance of them taking flight. I think they should keep working on safety, and something I think needs looking at is the very poor visibility out of the LMP1 cars. With big tyres and bodywork, you can't see anything out the front-right window. I had an accident in Sebring free practice, going through the hairpin quite slowly, just because I couldn't see another car right next to me – I turned in and there he was, bang!”
Is there a big difference in how you approach Spa in a prototype compared to an F1 car?
“It definitely helps that I know the circuit: Sebring obviously took a bit longer to get to grips with. It's a different speed, but you know for each corner that you shouldn't do that or you should try this, then you set about fine-tuning your approach, working out your exact braking points and how much kerb you can take.”
Finally, are you looking forward to returning to Le Mans for the first time since 1999?
“Yes, definitely – that's basically why I've done this. I enjoyed Sebring and I'm enjoying Spa, but the main thing for me was to do Le Mans again. Back in '99, when Mercedes asked me to do it, I wasn't so keen, to be honest, but of course I was their works driver, so I said yes. It was only when I got there that I realised how good it was and what a fantastic atmosphere the place has. I thought 'I'll have to do this again someday.' Obviously I knew it was a big, famous race, but until you go there and experience it, you don't really understand what it's about.”