In joint announcements by Mercedes GP and Pirelli, it has been revealed that Mercedes reserve driver Nick Heidfeld will leave the Mercedes to become test driver for the Italian tire maker. Heidfeld will enjoy a unique privilege under the current F1 regulations, as he’ll be the only driver to allowed to test outside of the current testing windows designated under in-season test ban.
Heidfeld’s choice highlights the absurdity of the reserve driver role under the current roles. Prior to the test ban, the reserve driver was actually a tester, who was able to keep active most of the year round with rigorous testing regimen. Since the inauguration of the test ban, however, the now so-called reserve driver is like an American Vice President or an understudy in the live theater. His sole function is to be prepared to stand in for the regular talent in case of emergency.
Both Luca Badoer and Giancarlo Fisichella stepped in for Felipe Massa last year in the wake of the Brazilian’s crash in Hungary. Neither driver made much of an impression in so doing. Both drivers are still employed by Ferrari, and neither one of them seems to have much to do as long as Massa and Fernando Alonso remain fit. So it is with all the reserve drivers now, which is why Heidfeld jumped at the change to test tires. At least he’ll be driving an F1 car.
Interestingly, the car he’ll be driving will be a Toyota 2009 model. Pirelli’s Motorsport Director Paul Hembery recently told Autosport, “We have a policy of complete impartiality, so we did not want to favour any existing team. The Toyota was the perfect solution, as it is a contemporary racing machine with proven speed and reliability but without links to any of the manufacturers currently competing in Formula 1.”
If Mercedes is trying to save a few euros, it was probably an easy decision to let him move to Pirelli. Presumably, since he’s leaving to take on another assignment, Mercedes won’t be forced to buy out his contract. And very likely the Mercedes brain trust, i.e. messrs. Brawn, Fry and Haug, decided that Heidfeld wouldn’t be sorely missed.
In bygone days, the test driver’s position served several functions, not least of which was as a means of evaluating young talent from the feeder series, such as GP2 and Formula 3. Now, with the tester’s function nearly completely gutted, will it be long before other teams on the grid follow Mercedes’ lead and decide to dispense with their reserve drivers all together? Unless the in-season test ban is lifted sometime soon, perhaps the reserve driver’s role, like that of the test team (the secondary group of mechanics and engineers used soley for in-season tests), will become obsolete.