Wheel of fortune turns for Heidfeld
London: Nick Heidfeld smiled at the memory of Denmark`s 1992 European championship-winning soccer team as he considered his latest and least-expected Formula One reinvention.
"That`s a good example. Let`s do it that way," grinned the 33-year-old Renault driver, speaking to Reuters at the final pre-season test in Barcelona before the opening March 27 Australian Grand Prix.
Denmark famously failed to qualify for the 1992 tournament and their players were already sunning themselves on a holiday beach when they got a sudden call-up as replacements for banned Yugoslavia.
Heidfeld had not yet booked his holiday but the softly-spoken German certainly had time on his hands before Renault came calling last month.
Poland`s Robert Kubica, Renault`s rising star with every hope of challenging for wins this season, had suffered career-threatening injuries while racing for fun in a minor rally in Italy.
Heidfeld, as scruffy off the track as he is smooth on it, now finds himself in with a real chance of shaking off his unwanted tag of `Mr Second Place` and securing that elusive first victory.
"It looked like it (Formula One) would be over for the moment but not forever," said Heidfeld of his position before Kubica`s terrible accident.
"Unfortunately I have been in similar situations before where it didn`t look good over the winter and then something came along."
"But clearly this was the most extreme...this year was very unexpected, which makes it nicer -- apart from the fact obviously that Robert`s bad accident isn`t a nice thing."
"But trying to put this aside, it`s always nice if something happens unexpectedly and on top of that, in a good team," he added.
Heidfeld came into Formula One with Prost in 2000 after winning the Formula 3000 title and serving as McLaren-Mercedes test and reserve driver.
He might have moved to McLaren in 2002 but lost out to younger and less experienced Sauber team mate Kimi Raikkonen and by the end of 2003 was again on the ropes before now-defunct Jordan stepped in with a late offer for 2004.
That lasted one year before he had to battle Brazilian Antonio Pizzonia in a shoot-out for the vacant seat at former champions Williams, who gave him his first two second places before the rest followed at Sauber.
Dropped by the Swiss team at the end of the 2009 season, he signed up as Mercedes test driver for 2010 only to then take up an offer to test for new tyre supplier Pirelli.
Sauber than ditched Spanish veteran Pedro de la Rosa and drafted in Heidfeld for the final handful of races before cutting him loose again in favour of Mexican Sergio Perez.
With no doors opening for 2011, Heidfeld`s career looked to have finally stalled after 11 seasons and 172 starts.
It seemed that he would be remembered chiefly for holding the record for the most second places (eight) and podium finishes (12) without winning.
Former champions Renault finished fifth last season but are confident they have produced a far better car over the winter.
The black-and-gold R31, with innovative exhausts and the same engine that powered Red Bull to both titles last year, has certainly looked quick.
"In theory the chances should be higher," said Heidfeld. "The team was better last year than Sauber was. It has been on an up, it has gone through very good developments during last season."
"Testing has gone well, but if it`s good enough to have a win this season is very much unknown. I doubt very much that we are the quickest team at the moment but you don`t always need to have the quickest car to win one race."
Team boss Eric Boullier was hopeful that could be the case.
"We bounced back last year and this year we have some good ideas that could make the car promising. So it`s a good opportunity for him," he told reporters.
"Definitely our car is better than 12 months ago...so he has some chance this year."
How long Heidfeld has in the cockpit remains an open question, with Kubica undergoing rehabilitation in an Italian hospital and eager to return as soon as he can even if many have written him off for the year and maybe longer.
"He`s as positive as you would like him to be in such circumstances," said Boullier of Kubica, who finished second in Melbourne last year.
"The surgery went well, his mental state is good, his recovery is good, he has started the rehabilitation. We need a couple of weeks or maybe a month to have enough development in the rehabilitation to understand when he can come back."