Monchengladbach-born Heidfeld took the traditional German route to Formula 1, starting in karts before progressing to German Formula Ford and then to German F3.
A third place in his first season in F3 brought him to the attention to Norbert Haug, then involved with the West Competition team (Cigarette brand West were then heavily involved in motorsport, being title sponsor of the McLaren F1 team), who offered to lend his support to the young German.
A second crack at the German F3 title in 1997, with backing from West, gave him the momentum he needed to move up to Formula 3000 a year later, where he was narrowly pipped into second place in the championship by future Williams driver Juan Pablo Montoya.
By now official test driver for the McLaren F1 team, Heidfeld made no mistake in 1999, winning the F3000 championship with a third of the season to spare.
Heidfeld made his F1 debut in 2000 with the ailing Prost team, and was unable to translate his imperious F3000 form into any points scoring finishes in a season plagued by DNFs.
He left Prost at the end of the year to join Sauber on a three year contract, where he partnered a young Kimi Raikkonen.
Despite outperforming Kimi over the course of the season, and despite Heidfeld’s West/McLaren connections, the Finn rather than Heidfeld was chosen by McLaren to replace retiring Mika Hakkinen for 2002.
Frequently in the points for Sauber, Heidfeld made the switch to Jordan for 2004, but the team were struggling financially and their car was slow, so at the end of the year Heidfeld jumped ship to Williams.
A pole position at his home GP at the Nurburgring was the highlight of a lone season with Williams which ended prematurely when Heidfeld picked up a string of freak injuries, missing the final five races of the season.
BMW left Williams at the end of 2005, and Heidfeld went with them, back to Sauber who were now a different proposition with works BMW backing.
He picked up a number of podiums in his four years with the team, but despite being fast and reliable, he was also regarded as fairly unspectacular and a bit unfashionable (the German media would call him ‘Leidfeld’ – leid being the German word for misery) and often suffered from being overshadowed by team-mates, whilst outperforming them. It happened with Kimi in 2001, with Massa in 2002 and it happened again with future Williams driver Kubica at BMW-Sauber in 2006/7.
BMW pulled out of Formula 1 at the end of 2009 & Heidfeld, resigned to being without a race seat accepted a test role with Mercedes-Benz, before resuming his racing career replacing Robert Kubica at Lotus-Renault in 2011 after the Pole was badly injured in the Rally of Andorra.
He picked up a final podium before a string of average results prompted Lotus to replace him with Bruno Senna for the rest of the season, and his Formula 1 career came to a close.