Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Driver File: Heikki Kovalainen

McLaren-Mercedes driver, Heikki Kovalainen is as mild mannered as they come when in the cockpit. He is another in a line of successful Finnish drivers like Keke Rosberg, Mika Hakkinen and Kimi Raikkonen that you can call a "Flying Finn". Kovalainen was another of Renault's Development Drivers that ended up making the leap to Formula One.

In 2005, Kovalainen made the move to GP2, which is F1's primary feeder series. He did well and was steady with some very good performances that had him tied for the series lead in wins. Kovalainen faltered the final third of the season and finished 2nd in the GP2 championship to current Williams F1 driver, Nico Rosberg. After the season, Kovalainen was named Renault reserve and test driver for the 2006 season.

After spending a year testing and grooming with Renault, he was promoted to the race seat for 2007 that was vacated by Fernando Alonso and replacing a double World Champion in a championship winning car is not easy. It was no surprise that expectations for Kovalainen were very high and in his debut race, he was a huge disappointment. However, having the grace of 20/20 hindsight his mistakes was customary of a rookie and his performance was probably more indicative of the lack of performance that was in the R27 chassis. He was unduly criticized by the press and his team boss Flavio Briatore especially in light of the words of Renault's Director of Engineering, Pat Symonds in pre-season testing, "he is perhaps a little bit rusty after a year's testing, but I think it is a very natural thing that comes back to him. When we are at this stage next year and look back at 2007...we will see that Heikki had some fantastic races. I would not put it past him to win a race this year even as a rookie. It could happen. And we will also look at some spectacular mistakes, thinking why on earth did he do that? But that is part of the learning process."

There are certainly some things to like about Heikki; his humility, accountability and practicality and it started from day 1. In 2003, in his first tests for Renault he was rather frank about his skills, "I will be testing for Minardi next week, and then the RDD program will decide what the future holds. I would love to get into F1, and after this run I have the confidence that I could do a good job, but it may be a good idea to wait another year: there is still lots of work to do on my technical ability, and the physical side." Also after his afore mentioned debut in Australia, he was rather critical of himself.

In June, Briatore said, "a young driver, if the car is good, can achieve great results. If the car is difficult to driver it will be harder for him to grow." Surely an acknowledgement that the Renault was not the car it was in 2005 and 2006. Moreover, Kovalainen did develop with experience and an adjustment to his driving style. "At the beginning of the season I was attacking the corners a bit too much. I had a lot of confidence last year in the Michelin tires and in the R26 car. The combination gave a lot of confidence. You could drive it anywhere you wanted and brake where you wanted. It always turned into the corner, and the lap times were always competitive. I have calmed down a little my driving style this year. The combination of a lack of grip at the front of the car and the driving style was causing a lot of mistakes and inconsistent performances. I think when we improved the aerodynamics at the front of the car, that also helped me to realize the problem." After a shaky start, Kovalainen ended up out performing and outscoring his more experienced teammate and Renault veteran, Giancarlo Fisichella, 30-21. This included Kovalainen's first Renault's only podium of 2007 and a run of 7 straight points finishes from Silverstone to Fuji.

Even though his performances picked up he was not confirmed at Renault and oddly enough he essentially got a promotion to McLaren, again replacing Fernando Alonso and teaming up with Lewis Hamilton. Kovalainen has been steady and has done well in making a transition to a brand new team. Kovalainen scored his first pole position this year and he even took his first ever win at the expense of Felipe Massa at the Hungarian Grand Prix. He continues to learn the car, the team and engineers methodically and continues to work on his technical skills, his physical fitness and mental approach. The team has extended his race deal to through 2009 demonstrating there belief that Kovalainen can continue to development and complete a dominant pair of drivers. With 4 races to go in the season, Kovalainen has a real shot of finishing 4th in the World Championship fight.

Next Driver File: Sebastien Bourdais

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