13 Years Ago Today, Formula 1 Returned To The Nordschleife
Though mixed fortunes meant he never claimed the Grand Prix win many of us feel he deserved, Nick Heidfeld nevertheless wrote himself into F1’s record books in more ways that one during a 185-Grand Prix career.
His 13 podium finishes without a win is a bittersweet F1 record, as are his 41 consecutive classified finishes between France 2007 and Italy 2009, and, at present, his 33 races finishes from China 2007 and Italy 2009. Heidfeld was one of NINE different polesitters in 2005, the most of any F1 season to-date (fittingly, his was achieved at the Nürburgring). And in 1999, the German drove a McLaren MP4/13 up the hill at Goodwood Festival of Speed in just 41.6 seconds, a record that stood for 20 years, and even then, was bested by just half a second – 41.18s – by Romain Dumas aboard a Volkswagen ID. R in 2019.
And on 28 April 2007, Nick Heidfeld made history once again when he completed three laps aboard a contemporary Formula 1 car around the formidable Nordschleife, 31 years after F1’s last official visit to ‘the Green Hell’.
Though the Nürburgring would intermittently appear on F1’s calendar up until and including 2013, in 2007, the 20.8km Nordschleife had not seen official Grand Prix action since the ill-fated German Grand Prix of 1976. Site of the third of an eventual six wins for James Hunt en-route to that year’s title, and, infamously, the fiery accident that almost cost the late Niki Lauda his life. For F1 to return in any capacity to ‘the Green Hell’ was – there’s no other word for it – monumental.
Unsurprisingly, the event, which headlined the annual celebration of all things BMW Motorsport, came with the pageantry one would expect of an F1 demo run. Then two-time World Touring Car Champion Andy Priaulx for example (he’d add a third before the year was out) acted as VIP taxi driver alongside fellow BMW works drivers Jörg Müller and Augusto Farfus that day, while his all-conquering BMW 320si WTCC sat proudly on display alongside the one-year-old Z4 M Coupé.
Arguably more notable though was the M3 GTR parked alongside them. As a road-going homologation of BMW’s track-going GT3 alter-ego, the GTR was the first M3 to receive a V8 engine when it arrived in 2001 – bloody feisty it was too, chucking out 382hp – and featured an eye-watering €250,000 price tag (around $270K USD). Only 10 were commissioned.
Moreover, though Heidfeld understandably stole most of the limelight, another young German was also on BMW PR duty that day. A former Formula BMW ADAC champion who’d recently established himself as a frontrunner in the Formula 3 Euro Series, and Formula Renault 3.5 before being appointed BMW-Sauber’s official third driver just over six months earlier: Sebastian Vettel. Nobody really knows what happened to him after that though…
It seemed all but certain, but the run was not an attempt to set records, however, as explained by BMW Motorsport Director Mario Theissen on the day itself.
“We wanted to give fans a special treat. And I believe we have done this with the entire BMW motor sport programme. The BMW M3 GTR that Olaf Manthey [founder of Manthey Racing and former Porsche Carrera Cup Germany champion] presented today was welcomed like an old friend. The car is actually much too athletic for the museum.
“Naturally, the high point was Nick’s drive with the F1.06. We had implored him to be careful. The day was an homage to the fans and to this unique circuit in the world of racing. For once, the lap times were a secondary consideration.”
For the demonstration, Heidfeld was equipped with the F1.06 he’d driven on his maiden campaign with the team in 2006, unmodified save its harder compound tyres and its maxxed ride height (4cm at the front, 8cm at the rear). Understandable, given the car’s historic value.
F1.06 after all was the single seater that ushered BMW into Formula 1 as an official works entry for the very first time, following a six-year alliance with Williams from 2000 to 2005. A solid job the new Sauber alliance had done too: in 2006, Heidfeld and early teammate, and former World Champion, Jacques Villeneuve collectively scored points in all but four of the opening 12 races, Heidfeld himself taking the factory team’s first F1 podium later that year in Hungary. That weekend, and at the expense of a departing Villeneuve, one of F1’s emerging hot properties made his Grand Prix debut aboard the F1.06: Robert Kubica. That the Pole took his first F1 podium at Monza, in only his third start spoke, volumes as to his potential, as indeed did his first GP win one year later in Canada.
That April afternoon at the Nürburgring in 2007 though belonged to Heidfeld. Indeed, to be the first driver to lap the 20.8km fallen GP circuit aboard a contemporary F1 car in more than three decades was not lost on the former Formula 3000 champion.
“This drive was simply incredible. I thought it would be great to drive on the Nordschleife before I started out. But it was even better than I had expected. This racing track is the best in the world.
“It was a very special moment when I left the Grand Prix circuit in the direction of the Nordschleife: I’d really like to have emptied the tank! I was really shaken up at the Bergwerk section and on the Döttinger Höhe. Another particularly special experience has now joined the many fantastic childhood memories and racing successes.
“I’ll never forget today as long as I live.”
Though “lap times were a secondary consideration”, many of the 45,000 spectators would be forgiven for thinking otherwise. Along the Döttinger Höhe main straight, Heidfeld hit a spine-tingling 275kph on one of the most dangerous circuits on the planet. This, despite the fact that his only previous single seater experience of the Nordschleife had been the 140hp Formula BMW he’d driven installation laps with that morning! Admittedly, this was not the first time the German had swapped rides at a BMW Motorsport celebration…
More impressive, and despite slowing down for photographers camped out around the 20km circuit, was the eventual lap time. Cheered on by his home fans as well as team manager Beat Zehnder, who was in hot pursuit in a camera helicopter to ensure radio communication was absolute across the Eiffel mountains, the not-quite-at-full-beans F1.06 was still on a moderate tear. Heidfeld clocking in at 8m 46s on his second tour.
Yes, James Hunt’s 7m 06.5s pole time from 1976 was well out of reach, and safer still was Stefan Bellof’s 6m 25.91s 1983 lap record – it would remain so for more than 35 years – but it mattered little. Nick Heidfeld had set another record, one unsurpassed let alone equalled 13 years later. One that could well remain so.
*Images courtesy of BMW Group