Despite a difficult start to the Formula E championship, Nick Heidfeld is determined to stick around for the second season. But can he change his extraordinary run of misfortune?
(This article first appeared as a Current E Insights publication. Download it here: Current E Insights Heidfeld April 2015)
It is September 2014. Beijing, China. The flat grey of the city’s pervasive smog has been replaced with blue skies and strong sunshine. Resplendent when bathed in coloured lights at night, the latticework of the Bird’s Nest stadium is more formidable during the day, like a science-fiction battleship; the bubble wrap-style exterior of the Water Cube, the nearby aquatics centre, is equally otherworldly. Yet, today they are merely satellites – backdrop, scenery – for the unveiling of a new breed of high-tech machines.
In the early morning stillness, nothing is still. At a u-shaped section of tarmac, a collection of white temporary buildings huddle together, like a bivouacking army. There are five on each side, facing each other, while in the centre rises a large, glass-fronted building decorated with trees, potted plants and soft furnishings.
It is the first Formula E race, not just of the season but of the entire sport. Everyone is nervous. Some of the teams had barely got in any running during the summer’s testing programme – a couple of days at best. Each team’s fourth car needs a proper shakedown run. The street track is brand new, robbing drivers of detailed simulator models with which to practice racing lines and energy conservation techniques. Its configuration is very different from the French and British permanent circuits used during the testing programme; changing surfaces, low grip levels and aggressive temporary kerbs could prove challenging for the new cars and newer drivers.
Two free practice sessions come and go, and many of the cars are in bits. Drivers have been sliding into the walls, smashing suspension and transmission parts. There is a shortage of spares.
Qualifying. Frenchman Nicolas Prost secures pole position in the blue-and-yellow car of the French team e.dams-Renault, which is run by his father. The lap time is slower than the quickest practice laps. That’s unusual, given that the weight of the cars is constant (no depleting petrol levels in a battery car) and that only one type of tyre is in use: drivers should be getting faster as each session passes, as they get more familiar with the circuit.
Less than half a second separates Prost from the German driver Nick Heidfeld, a vastly experienced former F1 racer. The two share WEC duties at a team called Rebellion but there are no friendships on track here today.
After penalties are handed out for qualifying infringements (for on track misdemeanours and for changing shattered gearbox and suspension parts) and a painfully slow ‘warm up’ lap (subsequently dropped because drivers were more concerned with saving battery energy than with warming up tyres and brakes), 20 cars line up for the first ever Formula E racing lap. There will be 25 laps in total, in a race that will last around 50 minutes and include a car swap for all drivers.
On pole, Prost. Four places farther back sits Heidfeld, in P5. Between them are the Audi Sport ABT cars of Lucas di Grassi and Daniel Abt, and the red, black and white Mahindra Racing car of Karun Chandhok.
One by one, the red lights count up. And then they go out.
“I wanted to be part of this from the beginning,” Heidfeld recounts eight months later. He’s softly spoken, with accented English and mid-90s boyband looks, all tousled blonde hair and eyes so blue they look cold, the tint of mountain snow in the shadows of early morning. “I was interested in the series early on, long before it had started. I heard rumours about it when I was still in F1. I kept tracking all the information.”
Heidfeld got his F1 start 15 years ago, signing for Alain Prost’s team in 2000. He subsequently moved to Sauber, Jordan and Williams, before driving for BMW Sauber from 2006 to 2009. He returned to the team part-way through the 2010 season, prefacing another transfer, to Lotus Renault this time, where he would finish his F1 racing. In 11 years in the sport, “Quick Nick”, as he was sometimes known, started 183 races and scored 13 podiums.
After F1, Heidfeld turned to endurance racing. “When I got into sports cars, I thought I would stay there because I enjoyed it so much,” he says. “There were a lot of people who thought Formula E would never happen.”
Things changed. Whispers about Formula E got louder. Manufacturers jointed the party, including many from F1’s hallowed ranks – McLaren, Williams, Renault, Dallara, Hewland.
By the spring of 2014, Formula E had an impressive list of race venues, a brand new car and a full complement of teams. Driver started signing up. Many of those were familiar from F1 too.
“I was contacted by a couple of teams,” says Heidfeld. “Publicly, I said I would not do it. I thought it would be too much to do two series at the same time. But then I heard about the teams and drivers and I thought, ‘Shit, I’d like to try that!’ I thought it would easier to get in from season one.”
Venturi came knocking in the tall, slim shape of Jim Wright, the team’s commercial director. The two already knew each other from time spent at Williams. It didn’t take much to get Heidfeld hooked.
“I find it interesting that it is something completely new and completely different,” he explains. “In F1, I enjoyed seeing new developments and new techniques, and working with the engineers. That is included in Formula E, but even more so.”
The drivers and teams who had endorsed the sport by signing up proved another decisive factor. Venturi itself, while not a racing entity in the mould of Andretti, Carlin (which runs Mahindra), Campos (NextEV China Racing), Super Nova (Trulli) or DAMS (e.dams-Renault), had a head start in the sort of expertise needed to operate these cars.
The company is a Monaco-based manufacturer of boutique electric vehicles – another way of describing a low volume production run with correspondingly high price tags. There’s a lot more than expensive trinkets to Venturi today, however. The engineering brains behind the company have secured the world land speed record for an electric car, through the VBB project. Those skills are also being applied to a range of other projects involving electric motors in niche applications outside the automotive market – many of which are top secret and which we can’t print.
Adding Hollywood glamour to technical grit, actor Leonardo DiCaprio was announced as a co-founder of the team early on, in a move designed to give Venturi a platform with which to rival the marketing pizzazz of Virgin. It didn’t hurt that the owners of the company are particularly close to Monaco’s ruling family, too.
Heidfeld was convinced. “I wanted to do something professionally, at a high level,” he says. “Even though this is something new, I think we have that. I don’t want to drive around without any competition. We have competition with these drivers. Just being a one day format is a challenge. It’s a great way to race.”
Formula E set out a sensible blueprint for scheduling and technical development. To keep costs down, all teams would use the same car in the first year, and the powertrain would be opened to other constructors in phases. The calendar was initially set to run in the winter months, to take advantage of the break in just about every other racing series.
“Interest is higher when there is a break in conventional motorsport,” says Heidfeld. “From social media, I gathered that people were looking at Formula E because nothing else is happening. It’s a good time to get people interested and anyone who watches it can’t argue with it being exciting.”
The car itself has turned out to be fun to drive, too. “People who are not so much in motorsport think it looks like a smaller F1 car,” says Heidfeld. “I would disagree. It has a unique look to it that sets it apart from other series. In terms of expectation, after going into sports cars, I tried to be open minded. I didn’t expect a lot. The fact that there was no sound – it was a strange experience. But you get used to it fairly quickly. We went out first on low power settings and the car felt very slow. But then we went out on higher power settings, and it was decent.”
Racing in Formula E requires much more than simply going fast, however, and it’s no coincidence that many drivers who count endurance racing as their “day job” have found their way into Formula E. It’s something Heidfeld thinks gives him an advantage over others: “I’ve always been good at fuel saving, even in series where it didn’t matter. I usually used less fuel than my team mate in F1, for example. It suits my driving style.”
In Beijing, clever moves, pacey but economic driving and a slick pit stop promotes Heidfeld to second place with a handful of laps remaining. What’s more, he’s fast closing in on the leader, Prost. With three laps remaining, Heidfeld starts to push harder. He edges ever closer to the back of Prost’s car. Closer. Closer.
Nervous smiles in the e.dams-Renault garage from Alain Prost. A win for his team at the first race, with his son taking victory, would be beyond words. All smiles at Venturi, too. A win would be preferred, but a second place finish against such experienced operators would go down just as well.
Last lap. Last corner. It’s clear that Heidfeld will make a move. He pulls to the left as the two cars head towards the braking zone, to wrest the inside line from the Frenchman – but it goes horribly wrong. Prost, without looking, jinks to the left to dissuade Heidfeld from attempting precisely what the German is already doing. The two make contact, smashing Heidfeld’s suspension and sending him on a one-way trip towards the sausage kerbs, which act like a ramp and catapult his car into the air. It flips over, smashes into the catch fencing, spins and spins through the air and finally comes to rest upside down.
“For me, it was nearly the perfect race – until the last corner,” Heidfeld remembers. “Spectators enjoy seeing drivers winning without being on pole. Driving through the field is always good. I like battling, I like overtaking. I made a good start, and had a good pit stop.”
Heidfeld clambered out from the pile of splintered parts that had once been a race car and walked back to the pits with Prost, whose car had also been crippled in the collision, the two furiously debating fault along the way. The incident ensured that Formula E was flung into the news in a way that perhaps would not have happened otherwise.
“Everyone saw what happened between me and Nico,” Heidfeld says. “On one side it showed how safe these cars are. On the other, it could have been completely different. It’s an open cockpit. You could hit something as you fly through the air. I was also really scared when I realised I had no control. I knew what was coming up. I knew it would lift up, I knew I would hit the wall. I knew it was going to hurt. I closed my eyes; it felt like forever. It was one of those moments where it all seemed to happen very slowly. After the first impact, I realised it hadn’t hurt. Then I was just waiting for the landing.”
There were many factors that led to the incident. Prost had lost radio contact with his garage, so he was driving much more slowly than he needed to, thinking he was running out of energy faster than he in fact was. The suspension of the cars was fragile, meaning the wheel-to-wheel contact that is routinely brushed off in other series resulted here in parts that folded like paper. The aggressive kerbs had been installed to enforce tight right-angled corners on a circuit cobbled together from available roads without any naturally flowing bends.
The net result was no result for either Heidfeld or Prost. But where the Frenchman has gone on to score podiums and win a race, Heidfeld’s season has gone from bad to worse. He’s become known as the unluckiest driver in Formula E.
“In Malaysia, we could have finished on the podium, and in Beijing,” says Heidfeld. In Malaysia, Heidfeld was pushed into the barriers by Franck Montagny, who would go on to fail a drugs test immediately after the race. Heidfeld ran back to the pits to pick up his second car, but was excluded from the race results for undertaking the car swap outside the designated area – because both cars were not in the garage. “In fact, in Malaysia, in the first or second lap someone crashed into me and damaged the cooling, so it would been over anyway.”
Things didn’t improve much in the South American leg. “Punta was a bit better but it was very disappointing in terms of penalties,” says Heidfeld. “One for not spending enough time in the pits, one for using too much power. We had been pretty safe, and we were trying to push limits.”
Then came Argentina, a frantic affair that saw several drivers crash out from the lead, one after the other – or lose the lead through penalties, as did Bird and Heidfeld. “We were very positive going into the Argentina race,” says Heideld. “I had the pace to challenge the cars in front of me. I was sort of lucky to inherit the lead so it would have been ok to at least finish on the podium. Then I was penalised while in the lead because the pit lane limiter had been off. I couldn’t believe my bad luck again. It was a lot harder to take.”
At what point does a run of extraordinary bad luck indicate a deeper issue? After six races, Heidfeld is in P19 in the driver standings. His race results read: crash, excluded, P10, P8, P12, P11. He has accrued just five points; topping the charts with 75 points is Lucas di Grassi, who swooped through the wreckage of that Beijing incident to take the win.
His team mate hasn’t fared much better when it comes to contributing points, however. In the team standings, Venturi is in last position, with just nine points. The leading team, e.dams-Renault, has scored 124. Does that mean the bad luck is Heidfeld’s – or Venturi’s?
“I’m still disappointed. We’ve shown we have the pace. I believe we could have finished on the podium in each race,” says Heidfeld in his calm, measured manner. “It’s tough. It would be better not to worry and to just look forward to the next one, but we might never have such a good chance again.”
With a championship win looking increasingly unlikely, Heidfeld wavers between optimism and realism when asked about his prospects this season. “I still want to win the championship – not just next year, but this year,” he says. “Of course it will be difficult because I’m trailing by so many points. But these extra races – in Russia and a second race in London – give me an extra chance. I definitely want to stay in the championship. My idea was to do sports cars and Formula E for one year, to see how much I enjoyed it and how time consuming it would be. My target now is to cut down on sports cars, maybe just do Le Mans, and then focus on Formula E for season two.”
Next season could be a very different story for the black cars. Venturi will be a manufacturer, which means it can build its own motors, inverters and transmissions. It’s something the company knows a lot about and is expected to excel at – but will it come too late to keep hold of Heidfeld?
“We are speaking and watching how it goes,” he says. “It’s a bit unusual because normally you have the winter break to sign for next year. In Formula E, it’s a summer break. I like the people at Venturi. They’re committed for the future. There are a lot of positive things. On the other hand, we have not scored the points that we should have. I don’t like to predict things. There’s a high probability that we will work together. I try to do my best to win and we’ll see how it goes.”
With just the European stint remaining, including two sort-of home races (there’s a German round, but Heidfeld lives in Switzerland; and a Monaco race, where the team is based), Heidfeld thinks that the series has proved itself a worthy addition to the world of motor sports, although he acknowledges it has a long way to go.
“I hope the series becomes big and successful,” he says. “I think there will be a lot more competition for seats in season two. There were a lot of sceptics but now people watch it. It’s similar with the drivers. I‘ve heard from friends that other drivers want to try it. The level of drivers now is very, very high. There would not be many people arguing that the field at the bottom is not as strong or that people are there because of money. That’s not the case in F1.”
In fact, Heidfeld is enjoying the rather more low-key affair that Formula E presents, in contrast with F1. “The atmosphere is very different,” he explains. “In Formula E, people believe in it. You feel that everyone is pulling in the same direction and trying to move the championship forward. Everyone helps each other. It’s very enjoyable. It’s not as big as F1 of course. F1 generates a lot of money and everyone wants a piece of it. F1 can be extreme and it can be unfair but that’s all a part of it.”
“Extreme and unfair” could almost be a motto for Heidfeld’s Formula E results to date, however. After another tough event in Miami, he stands looking at the record-breaking VBB3 parked in the golden rays of the dusk sun. Its sleek tubular fuselage covers a powertrain that may well provide the blueprint for a dominant Formula E car. As Venturi has already found, however, running solo on salt flats is very different to threading a route through a pack of scrapping, squabbling machines all vying for the same square centimetres of tarmac.
Leaning back against a tree, still in his white Venturi race suit, he says ruefully: “A voice came down saying, ‘Smile, it can’t get any worse’. So I smiled and it got worse.”
It’s a refrain he’s muttered a few times this season – and one he’ll be hoping he’s said for the last time.