MELBOURNE // What if? That could, with some justification, have been the question in the Renault team garage yesterday after Nick Heidfeld failed to reach qualifying two.
Heidfeld only joined Renault in the winter after Robert Kubica suffered serious injuries during a rally accident in Italy. But with Kubica regularly outpacing teammate Vitaly Petrov last season, the French team were entitled to wonder what would have happened had the Polish driver been behind the wheel instead of Heidfeld.
Kubica finished second in Melbourne last year, despite qualifying in ninth place. His chief medic said earlier this month in Barcelona that a potential return date was still "impossible" to predict.
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Heidfeld, a German veteran who has not won a race since triumphing in Formula 3000 in 1999, had been forced to fight his corner this week after finishing behind Petrov in Friday's first practice.
He said he was "quite confident" that he would be able to emulate Kubica and outpace his teammate and "show some good performances".
But yesterday the 33-year-old was humbled as he finished qualifying in 18th place. Petrov finished sixth.
"I'm disappointed to be starting the season from so far back," he said. "As we have seen with Vitaly, the car seems to have good pace and the race is wide open, so hopefully I can move forward and fight for points."
Heidfeld added he had suffered from traffic congestion and an issue with his kinetic energy recovery system, while James Allison, the Renault technical director, said the tyres - which had been expected to produce problems - "proved durable and consistent".
Petrov, who said he had not felt the predicted "drop-off" from the new Pirelli tyres, was understandably pleased with his career-best sixth-place qualifying finish.
"After all the hard work during a very tough winter for the whole team, it feels great to come here and qualify on the third row," the Russian said. "There was a lot of pressure in Q3 because I only had one run, right at the end of the session. So there were no second chances and I'm glad I was able to deliver the lap.
"The car felt good right from the start of practice and we've improved it constantly during each session. I think we are in a great position for the race and that we can fight for some points."