After his first grand prix outing in a Formula One car, back in March 2007, Heikki Kovalainen found himself on the receiving end of a very public ear-bashing, the result of a disastrous race. A few months later though, and Heikki was giving his much more experienced team mate a run for his money, and eventually finished the season ahead. Hailed as a pretty good driver, Kovalainen was invited to join McLaren, an offer he just couldn’t refuse.
In the build up to his first year with the Woking-team, Heikki was very keen to point out that he would be receiving equal status to his much adored team mate, Lewis Hamilton, and that he would never have signed the contract if this were not the case. Unfortunately, even equal opportunities weren’t enough for the Finn’s second year at the sharp end of motor sport, and Hamilton ended the year on almost twice as many points.
Given that Heikki apparently takes his time settling into a team, many waited for the driver, car and team to click into place. Looking back at 2008, it is hard to see if it ever did. Certainly Kovalainen is quick, mature and very good at keeping his head down and racing. But is he really a natural-born racer?
Aside from a win after Felipe Massa’s engine let go at the last minute in Hungary, Heikki failed to stay on the radar during 2008. The only other memorable moments from Kovalainen’s season were his accident in Spain and a rather embarrassing run in Italy. Despite these mixed performances though, Kovalainen was retained for the 2009 campaign, but is the Finn going to be fighting for more than just points this year?
The sport is enjoying an abundance of talent at the moment, and there are plenty more hotshots waiting in the wings and desperate to get a chance to show what they can do in a Formula One car. McLaren are seen as one of the most desirable teams to drive for along with Ferrari, and although some drivers may be wary of competing in such a straight-laced squad alongside Lewis Hamilton, I doubt very many would ever turn down the chance. Well, maybe one driver would, but he’s been there and done it before.
So with the pick of the bunch, McLaren will be carefully analysing Heikki this season, and weighing up their options for 2010. McLaren lost out on the constructors championship in 2008 because Kovalainen couldn’t match the pace of his rivals for much of the season, and if he should repeat this in 2009, it is without doubt that the team will see a driver change.
Conversely, with a shakeup in regulations, Kovalainen could suddenly find himself better suited to the cars. But either way, 2009 is looking more and more like a very important year for Heikki, one he cannot get wrong.
A few years ago someone asked me to name a couple of young drivers to watch. I picked Lewis Hamilton and Heikki Kovalainen. Theis was long before their F1 debuts. I think Kovalainen has a lot of potential but he is up against the best driver on the grid by some margin and in a team that is very much Hamilton’s. I wouldn’t be surprised when Kovalainen leaves McLaren if he were to establish himself as a lead driver in a very good team.
At McLaren he has two major problems. Lewis Hamilton who has been a McLaren driver since he was 10 and has delivered every season since and Paul di Resta who has been with McLaren and Mercedes for years and won the Euro F3 championship as team mate to Sebastian Vettel who is supposed o be the next big thing. McLaren can only keep di Resta out of their F1 team for so long before he decides his fortunes would be better served by going elsewhere.
It is make or break this year, not only for his future with McLaren, but maybe with any other team.
He has to challenge enough to win the constructors, but not enough to beat Hamilton. If he fails on those two fronts McLaren will find themselves another #2, and other teams may be wary of picking up someone who couldn’t challenge, even in the best car on the grid.
But then, there are also management changes at McLaren this year – so whose to say what will happen.
I would say it is indeed an important year for Heikki. When I think about his most recent season, I believe he was heavier on fuel than Lewis at many races- if he gets a 100% fair shot, he is more than capeable of coming through. He may not be on the same page as Lewis. Kimi, or Alonso, but I believe he is very good- better than last season indicated.
His biggest obstacle will still be working around the “Team Hamilton” mentality- there’s a very good reason Rosberg diden’t jump when Alonso left Woking…….