|19. Heikki Kovalainen – Lotus Cosworth
It can’t be easy being the team-mate of a World Champion. Just ask Heikki Kovalainen – he’s had a two-year stint as Lewis Hamilton’s whipping boy in 2008-9.
The Finn was summarily outclassed by the Briton, and despite inheriting a lucky win at the 2008 Hungarian GP, his form was patchy during his two seasons at Woking, and he now finds himself at Lotus trying to rebuild his career.
Earning him quite a lot of credit in the paddock has been the fact that Heikki – while hinting that the playing field wasn’t always particularly level as Lewis’ team-mate – never criticised the McLaren team.
Now Heikki faces a different challenge at the back of the grid, trying to develop a new team in a competitive environment.
Perhaps now, with the pressure off and the expectations of him being pretty low, we might see more of the Heikki who occasionally gave Hamilton a serious run for his money?
Heikki’s motorsport career would never have gotten off the ground were it not for support from Renault, who recognised his talent in karting and Formula Renault to opt to invest a considerable sum in mapping his progress up the motorsport ranks.
The manufacturer placed him in the British F3 series, and he repaid their investment with some storming drives that saw him graduate to the Nissan World Series, which he won outright in his second season.
By this stage, Heikki had secured a regular test driving role with the Renault F1 team.
One of Kovalainen’s career highlights came at the 2004 Race of Champions, where he beat the likes of Michael Schumacher and rally ace Sebastien Loeb to clinch the title.
He moved to the maiden GP2 series in 2005, and he lead the championship in the early stages until he was eventually overhauled by Nico Rosberg at the final round of the season.
In spite of this, Kovalainen was being steadily groomed during 2006 to take over Fernando Alonso’s seat when the Spaniard made his all-too-short journey to the McLaren team for the 2007 season.
Unfortunately Heikki’s F1 debut at the 2007 Australian GP proved to be a disaster, where he blotted his copybook with a string of mistakes and prompted team boss Flavio Briatore to question if it was the Finn’s “less-talented brother” behind the wheel.
With rumours doing the rounds that he would be replaced mid-season, Heikki finally got it together and scored a string of six consecutive podium finishes, peaking with an excellent second at the rain-hit Japanese GP in Fuji. His run of points was such that he overtook Giancarlo Fisichella as the team’s undisputed Number 1 driver.
When Alonso’s relationship with McLaren went belly-up, the French team took him back with open arms, and Heikki slotted in at Woking in what effectively a straight swap.
He started well by outpacing his team-mate Lewis Hamilton in the opening rounds, and survived an horrific accident at the Spanish GP when he speared into the tyre barriers at considerable speed.
However, it was very much a season of two halves, and his form took a significant dip in the second half of the season – aside from that lucky win at the Hungaroring.
His 2009 campaign was largely anonymous – despite performing better than Hamilton when the MP4-24 was at its most appalling, he couldn’t display the same sparkling form shown by Hamilton as the car began its steady improvement. Admittedly, the enhancements and upgrades appeared on his car much later than Hamilton, and he was often given the rough end of the stick in terms of race strategy.
- A strong natural talent, whose qualifying record (in particular) has continued to improve.
- Determined to prove himself after a very poor 2009 season. Can he bounce back?
- A highly engaging and personable driver who is popular in the paddock.
- Very much a ‘confidence’ driver, whose form has taken a hit in recent years.
- Tends to fade on race day, despite typically qualifying better than the car’s potential.
What defines success in 2010?
- Eliminate the reputation for being a Saturday qualifying specialist.
- Show his underdog characteristics by hauling Lotus into the midfield.
- [Images via StatsF1]