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Nick Heidfeld to Replace Pedro de la Rosa at Sauber

Nick Heidfeld looking rather bored in his role as Mercedes reserve driver

It seems that silly season has gotten off to a late start this year, no doubt because the season has seen enough controversies to keep tongues wagging about issues other than drivers’ contracts.   As if making an effort to beat the rumor mongers to the punch, by firing Sauber has made the surprise announcement that driver Pedro de la Rosa and replacing him with former Sauber pilot Nick Heidfeld, effective immediately.  While there had been speculation that one or both of Sauber’s drivers might be vulnerable to replacement,  there had been little indication that Sauber would make a change before year’s end.

Heidfeld, it will be remembered, had driven for the team in two previous stints, for the 2001-2003 seasons, and then again during the 2006-2009 seaons, for a total of seven years.  During his second stint, the team was actually branded BMW, but that manufacturer left the sport and sold the team back to its founder, Peter Sauber.  The move left Hiedfeld in the lurch.  He had a brief possibility of joining Mercedes, but that gap was soon filled by comeback kid Michael Schumacher.

In the wake of Schumacher’s Merc signing, Heidfeld was drafted as reserve for that team.  But in this era of banned in-season testing, a reserve driver (formerly known as test driver) has little to do.  Recently, Heidfeld announced that he would leave Mercedes to become the designated test driver for Pirelli, who will become the F1 tire supplier in 2011.

But no racer likes to be relegated to testing (certainly de la Rosa was anxious to drive a car in anger again, after having spent several years testing for McLaren), and Heidfeld jumped at the opportunity to return to the team that has seen him through most of his F2 career. (From 2000 through 2009, he was at BMW/Sauber for a total of seven years, and at Prost, Jordan and Williams for a year each.)

Said Heidfeld of the move, “After the last months I’m even more motivated than ever. For me it is like coming home, as I raced for seven years in total for the team from Hinwil. Without doubt I will be feeling at home straight away and this should help me to familiarise myself as soon as possible with the car. I want to thank Peter Sauber for the faith he has put in me.”

While the decision must have been a bitter pill for Pedro de la Rosa to swallow, team owner Peter Sauber tried to sugar-coat the issue somewhat by saying, “It was a hard decision for me to make as a team principal and I want to thank Pedro for his professionalism.  By signing Nick we have a driver we know extremely well who will help us to further judge the comparative potential of our car.”

Clearly, de la Rosa had been hired in the first place because he was a veteren with tens of thousands of test kilometers under his belt, and a fair amount of racing experience.  On paper he looked like a perfect counterpart to team mate Kamui Kobayashi, who is a feisty rookie.  One assumes Sauber’s strategy was similar to that of Williams, in the latter’s pairing of super-veteran Rubens Barrichello and rookie Nico Hulkenberg.

The idea, of course, is to have the veteran help develop the car and mentor the rookie.  A Williams, this only half worked, as Hulkenberg still seems to need quite a bit of mentoring.  At Sauber, the situation is different.  Kobayashi generally seems to outshine  is Spanish team mate, which makes the Japanese driver the team’s benchmark for performance.  But Kobayahsi is a rookie, which means that his own relative performance is still being evaluated.  This makes it difficult to judge exactly how good the car might be.

Employing a known entity like Heidfeld, who quite a bit more F1 race experience than de la Rosa, will give Sauber a better reference point for judging both Kobayashi and the current Sauber chassis.

One feels sorry for de la Rosa.  He was taking a gamble in returning to a active racing at this stage in his career.  As Michael Schumacher well knows, making a comeback after several years off can be a dicey proposition, even if you’ve stayed active as a tester.

Nevertheless, de la Rosa has put a good face on the matter, saying, “I am surprised by the team’s decision, but I respect it and would like to wish everyone good luck for the remainder of the season. I still intend to be in Formula One for 2011.”  Some have suggested that he’ll complete a full swap with Heidfeld, assuming the German’s testing position with Pirelli.

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