Past Sauber driver Heidfeld laments its ongoing driver contract drama

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MIAMI – Nick Heidfeld will be seeking to break out of a tough four-race period to open the FIA Formula E Championship this weekend in Miami with Venturi.

But the German has kept an eye on what’s happening on the other side of the world, as the team with which Heidfeld spent the majority of his Formula 1 career, Sauber, is embroiled in the driver contract saga involving three drivers and two race seats.

The 1999 F3000 champion raced for Sauber three different times. He was full-time from 2001 to 2003 as Sauber, returned in 2006 when BMW took over the team as BMW Sauber through 2009, and took over for the final five races of the 2010 season when BMW departed, but Sauber retained its place on the grid.

Heidfeld said he understands both sides of the argument, but explained that drivers need to be treated correctly.

“Yeah I followed it the last couple days, because unfortunately it’s been the most exciting part of Formula 1 the last couple days although it’s a new season coming,” Heidfeld only half-jokingly told MotorSportsTalk ahead of this weekend’s Miami ePrix.

“I’m still quite attached to Sauber, as I spent the majority of my F1 career there.

“But on the other side you cannot have four or five (drivers), or let’s say you cannot have more than two contracts with drivers to do the season. I also have to think from the driver’s perspective, and sometimes drivers are not treated the way they should be.”

Giedo van der Garde, who was Sauber’s reserve driver last year, has won his legal case to be able to drive in this weekend’s season-opening Australian Grand Prix. But without an FIA Superlicense, he lacks the correct credentials to do so (more here from my MotorSportsTalk colleague Luke Smith).

As for his day job, Heidfeld is set for the reminder of the FE season with Venturi, and looks to dovetail that with selected sports car races. He did not confirm a team in sports cars; he has raced the last three seasons full-time with Rebellion Racing.

Heading into this weekend, he dismissed his tough starta near miss-win at China and a disqualification at Malaysia got things off to a rough start – and seeks a better weekend on the streets of Miami.

“Firstly I always like to think of things not in terms of bad luck, but then analyze things and see how I can improve and not get stuck in a bad situation,” Heidfeld said. “Sometimes you come to the conclusion where you cannot change anything. It’s not easy.

“The main thing is to focus on the next important thing, not the past, but the future. You have to do the best at the next race and not get your mind changed too much. I don’t like to think about bad luck. My normal approach I learned over the years is to keep calm and try improving.”

Heather Lyne, Dennis Erb Jr. make history in the World of Outlaws Late Model Series

Lyne Erb Outlaws Late
Jacy Norgaard / World of Outlaws
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More than two decades in the making, the pairing of Heather Lyne and Dennis Erb Jr. produced a historical milestone in Dirt Late Model.

Last month, Erb and his long-time crew chief Lyne won their first World of Outlaws Late Model Championship and with this achievement, Lyne became the first female crew chief to win in a national late model series. Their journey together goes back 21 years and tells the story of hard work, persistence and belief in oneself.

After a career-best season with the World of Outlaws, Erb and Lyne secured the points championship at US 36 Raceway in Osborn, Mo. with three races remaining in the season. The consistency and success of their season came down to pinpoint focus. Lyne and Erb are a team of two living out a David vs. Goliath tale. In order to be as successful as possible this year the duo knew they had to do as much as possible with the resources they had.

“It’s always a challenge when you only have two people, both at the racetrack and at the shop,” Lyne told NBC Sports. “I also work full time, so during the day, Dennis has to do a significant amount of work so that when I get down there I can start working and maintaining. It’s planning ahead. It’s having that system in place and making sure that you’re prepared ahead of time.

“When you have a problem at the track, making sure you have all that stuff ready so it’s a quick change and not a lengthy process to make a repair. We had zero DNFs in the World of Outlaws, we had only one DNF out of 96 races [combined among all series].”

Dennis Erb clinched his 2022 championship before the World of Outlaws World Finals. Jacy Norgaard – World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Taming Time

This was not an easy feat. Between a full travel schedule and Lyne’s full-time job as an engineer, time comes at a premium. What they lack in time and resources they made up for in patience and planning.

“We buckled down, and we got all the equipment that we needed back, motors freshened, and things of that nature,” Lyne said about the mid-point of last season. “We were able to keep up with that. We just had a higher focus. I tried to reduce my hours at my day job as much as I possibly could while still maintaining what I need to get done at work. I got rid of a lot of the other distractions and got a more refined system in place at the shop.

“We did certain tasks on certain days so we had time to recover. We were on the road a little bit more, as opposed to coming home to the shop. So we had to be more prepared to stay out on those longer runs. It was just really staying on top of things a little more. It was a heightened sense.”

This was Lyne and Erb’s fourth full season with the Outlaws, but they’ve been on the road together for the last 21 seasons starting in 2001. Their partnership began with Lyne’s bravery. When one door closed, she was quick to open another. In 2001, Lyne’s dad was ready to stop racing. Her mother wanted to regain her weekends, but Lyne knew this was her life path and wasn’t prepared to lose it.

“I’ve always been a tomboy at heart,” Lyne said. “I watched racing with my dad. Growing up he watched NASCAR. In high school, I got tired of playing at the lake house, so I went to the local dirt track and fell in love with it. I just couldn’t get enough. It took a year for me to convince my dad to come to the track with me. He finally did and we sponsored a car that year, the following year he started to race limited cars. He ran hobby stocks and limited late models.”

At some point, Lyne and her father’s level of commitment drifted apart.

“He did it for about five years,” Lyne said. “And then my mom said: ‘I’m done racing. I want my weekends back. It’s just not fun anymore.’ I wasn’t ready to hang up my wenches and Dennis raced out of the same hometown so I, on a dare, went down and introduced myself; told him if you ever need any help, I’ll drill out rivets, I’ll help wash, whatever you need. Twenty-one years later here I am.”

Heather Lyne became the first female crew chief to secure a national touring late model championship in 2022. Paul Arch / World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Breaking Through

Lyne entered a male-dominated job in a field that is also male-dominated – and where there were few examples of women creating these places for themselves. In this way, Lyne became a blueprint for other women as they strive to find a place for themselves in racing and in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) overall. She has her mother to thank for providing a strong role model, her father for sharing her passion, Erb for taking a chance on an unknow entity and most importantly herself.

“I was raised to believe that I can do anything, I want to do, as long as I put my heart and soul into it.” Lyne replied when asked about role models in the sport growing up. “My parents did not raise me to have that limitation. But from a racing role model perspective, I went in there completely green and just introduced myself to Dennis, the fact that he was brave enough to take that risk and bring a girl to the racetrack. Someone he didn’t know at all speaks volumes for him.”

Lyne and Erb have learned how to survive and succeed with each other on the road. They do this by leveraging decades of combined experience and an ability to adapt to the everchanging landscape of dirt late models. Next year the World of Outlaws visits nearly a dozen new tracks and Lyne sees it as an opportunity for continued success.

“I just want to do it again,” Lyne says going into next season, “I’m looking forward to the competition, I always do. I wouldn’t do it if I wasn’t competitively driven.

“There are some new tracks on the schedule that I’m looking forward to trying for the first time that I haven’t been to myself,” Lyne said of the 2023 season, “Dennis seems to do well on those first timers. We won out at Marion center, we finished second at Bloomsburg. We have a good solid notebook of information to tackle them over the last three years with these rocket race cars that we’re running. It’s good to have that information and leverage it to try some new things.”