Nick Heidfeld has just accepted what would have been the dream job for Michael Schumacher. Pounding around doing miles upon miles of tyre testing for Pirelli is exactly what Schumacher ideally needs if he is ever to recapture his winning form.
Even if it meant canning some late-season races and allowing Heidfeld to stand in for him at Mercedes, Schumacher would have been perfectly served to lead the Pirelli development programme. It would have effectively recreated the situation he had in his Ferrari/Bridgestone years whereby everyone else on those tyres had to live with whatever Michael decided suited him best. He could have aggressively pushed for an ever-stronger front tyre, one that responded exactly as he liked when he loaded it up early in the corner, with just the right construction to react to his preference of delicately pivoting the car around the outer front tyre as the corner progresses.
The way a tyre's characteristics dovetails with a driver's natural style is a hugely significant part of what's determined various drivers' effectiveness over the years. Changes in the demands made by the tyres have lit up some careers and badly hurt others. Juan Pablo Montoya for example detested the high-grip understeer that the Michelins gave him on the '06 McLaren - and left him looking like a shadow of the driver he'd been in the second half of '05 when, with a less strong Michelin rear, he was every bit as quick - and sometimes quicker - than Kimi Raikkonen.
Nick Heidfeld, Pirelli testing
Raikkonen himself never really adapted to the single-lap understeer you got with the control Bridgestones on the Ferraris of 2007 onwards. Fernando Alonso at first did not get on with these tyres either and took most of '07 to adapt his style around them. Lewis Hamilton was nowhere near as quick, relative to Alonso, when he tested on the 2006-spec Michelins at the end of '06. When they switched to the control Bridgestones, he suddenly lit up. Robert Kubica was fantastic on the high-grip understeer Michelins of the 2006 BMW, but took most of '07 getting the hang of the control Bridgestones and even then felt that the advantage he enjoyed on the Michelins could not be recreated.
Then we arrived in 2010 and witnessed Michael's struggle. He's adamant it's only about the tyres - and maybe his age is against him only in the sense that it's hurt his ability to adapt. The fronts just do not generate the grip he needs for his style. Ross Brawn talks of how the current Bridgestone control tyres are the only ones in his long experience that reach a saturation point of load, where no matter how much more you load them up, they don't respond: "Usually you get to a point where the increase in grip flattens out a bit as you put more aero load into them, but I've never seen any like these where they just flat-line once you get to a certain point. I think they were designed this way for the sake of equalising the racing, but I doubt whether the Pirellis will be like that next year. I doubt if they could make a tyre like that even if they wanted to."
But still the questions remain about Michael, regardless of tyre characteristics - and the desperation that was read into his defence of 10th place from Rubens Barrichello in Hungary just underlined those doubts. One person in the paddock from Michael's distant past said: "I think it's so very, very sad. The guy is destroying himself piece by piece and he cannot see it." That's an extreme view, but it's out there.
No matter how much Michael believes all his problems relate to the tyres, he cannot truly know. What he therefore needs more than anything else is to eliminate that variable from the equation. Leading the whole tyre programme - not to mention establishing a few thousand kilometres of testing head-start over the field - would have been the perfect answer.
A smart team would do well to get Heidfeld signed up to a 2011 race contract. In the meantime Nick might want to put his mobile to answerphone if he's not to find himself in hours of discussion with a seven-time champion.
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