Heikki Kovalainen: the driver debates

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Heikki Kovalainen became an F1 winner in this year's Hungarian Grand Prix

Heikki Kovalainen has had an odd introduction to Formula 1. After bagging a seat with reigning champions Renault in 2007, he made his debut as the team hit a slump in performance.

He made a poor start to the year but quickly rallied, and beat his vastly more experienced team mate Giancarlo Fisichella on points over the course of the year.

Renault dropped him anyway – and though he found a new berth at an even more competitive team, he has faced the unenviable task of partnering Lewis Hamilton. How well is he doing?

Kovalainen impressed in GP2 in 2005. Despite not winning the championship (he was runner-up to Nico Rosberg) he showed consistency and speed?���?� and some poor luck. Much the same can be said of his 2008 campaign so far.

Last year he made his F1 debut in an evil-handling Renault R27, and his maiden race was punctuated with several spins, leading Flavio Briatore to make his infamous remark that surely Kovalainen’s brother had been driving the car instead.

After a few races in the doldrums Kovalainen got a handle on the R27 and rebounded. At Montreal – the same race where current team mate Lewis Hamilton scored his first win – Kovalainen raced from 22nd to fourth.

From that point on the balance of power at Renault had shifted. Now Kovalainen was usually the team’s best hope for points, and at Fuji he put in a virtuouso drive in shocking weather to beat Kimi Raikkonen to second.

After such a successful turn-around it was, on the face of it, a surprise to see Renault let Kovalainen go. But in the real world, Renault had the chance to get Alonso back and they knew they were more likely to do that if they brought someone more financially beneficial to them – and less threatening to Alonso – so Nelson Piquet Jnr got the gig.

(I think Renault may come to regret that. Piquet’s form this season has been mixed at best, and Alonso is considering a move to Ferrari, or Honda, or both.)

Kovalainen landed on his feet however, stepping into Alonso’s vacant slot at McLaren. Rumours suggested the team wanted Nico Rosberg, but he wasn’t available, and considered Mark Webber, but cast him aside when he made one blunt remark too many.

Early in the season Kovalainen often looked capable of matching Hamilton for pace, but suffered some vile luck. The safety car ruined his race at Melbourne, he lost five places on the grid in Sepang, had a huge crash after a component failure in Barcelona and picked up a puncture on the first lap in Istanbul.

However in recent races Hamilton has had the edge. Kovalainen was left floundering in his team mate’s wake at Silverstone, and lagged behind at the Hockenheimring and Valencia.

He wasn’t quite on the pace at the Hungaroring either – but he was quicker than Raikkonen and the BMWs, and when events turned in his favour he was perfectly placed to collect his maiden win. It may have been fortunate, but given his luck early in the season only the hardest of hearts would have begrudged him it.

It came a few days after McLaren confirmed a one-year extension to Kovalainen’s contract. That is an endorsement of the form he has shown this year, but it carries hints that McLaren still have an eye on someone else for 2010, or are at least keeping their options open.

Martin Whitmarsh explained some of the ways he thinks Kovalainen has improved during the year:

Heikki’s much more adept at switching effortlessly between engine-saving, brake-saving and tyre-saving modes, and he knows exactly when to push, so the situation he encountered at the start of the year when he was dealing with slightly more tyre degradation is no longer a concern.

The reality is that Heikki’s particularly strong when he’s got the car in front in his sights. When he homes in on another competitor then his natural competitive instincts really come alive.

Now 27 points behind his team mate in the title race, Kovalainen will surely be relegated to playing the number two role soon. Although no driver wants to be subjugated to supporting his team mate’s title bid, Kovalainen is probably wise enough to see it as an opportunity to cement his evident popularity within the team.

Next year his luck may change, but if it does, will he have the raw pace to take on Hamilton in the same team? The jury’s still out on that. Give your verdict on Heikki Kovalainen below.

Read more about Heikki Kovalainen: Heikki Kovalainen biography

Will Renault regret replacing Heikki Kovalein (right) with Nelson Piquet Jnr?

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Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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38 comments on “Heikki Kovalainen: the driver debates”

  1. I was really excited when Kovalainen made it into F1, after having heard of him so many times when he was still in junior formulas. And coming from Finland, I expected him to be as good as his compatriot Raikkonen, or even Hakkinen. But from what I’ve seen of him, there isn’t much that suggests he’s got a world championship winning season in him. I’m just an uneducated spectator on the sidelines and would love to be proven wrong though :)

  2. I was somewhat disheartened with Heikki’s first win, I was willing him to blitz the opposition.

    if you look at his career, its been somewhat like his current tour of F1, skipping from one team to the next every year, only when he’s settled into a team for a year that he’s gone and beaten everyone else and bagged himself a championship.

    you could call him a social butterfly, little jovial fellow he is.

    Cyanide, the kids got the talent, he won the race of champions, by beating not only shoe maker, but rally drivers in equal machinery.

  3. Kovy’s actually done better this year than I thought he would. He’s a good driver, and he has the skills and speed to guarantee im another win this year or next year. On a different note, I had no idea that McLaren considered Mark Webber as a driver!

  4. He is really good driver but I don’t think he made of champions .

  5. Kovy’s a nice young man, just like Coulthard was in the early years with McLaren, they seem to lack that killer instinct and aggression required to bag a world title. Whereas Hamilton is full of it! More so than any other contemporary driver including Raikkonen and Massa. Hamiliton has the same arrogance and self belief as Schumacher and Senna, only time will tell if he becomes as successful. By the way didn’t Schumacher stall that car on the start line in the final of the race of champions when Kovy went on to win.

  6. Since it’s clear that mclaren will have Lewis as their main driver for a while, it makes sense to have someone he gets on with, who’s competitive, can bring home constructors points and the odd win, but doesn’t threaten Lewis… (You think alonso is a bad loser? We know Lewis is worse)
    I think kovy is the perfect driver to fill this role. I see it as mika/david type combination (except with nationalities switched!). I’m sure he has contributed to the harmony at mcl this year and he also seems like a really nice guy. As a long term mclaren fan, there’s no-one I’d rather have in that seat next year.

  7. I thought Kovy lasy year at Renault was absolutely fantastic! He drove really well and got results that his more experienced team mate could not. However, this year I do not think he has done such a good job as in races he just seems to drift off.

  8. He is a Rubens Barichello or david coultahrd at best,
    And when compared to Lewis, he seems even worse.

  9. I agree, Heikki is a top-act, but not the ultimate winner. Much like Berger or DC in their spells at McLaren. I think he will do very well as number 2 to Hamilton. And yes, he’s defintely more mature tham Nelson -call me Junior when I’m in a good mood- Piquet. After all he should be happy that’s he’s the unofficial second driver at McLaren (picking up a win and some podiums) rather than Renault (getting a point or 3… out of 4 races).

  10. @ Stealthman do you have doubts about webber ???
    he is one of f1 most talentet drivers i think.
    Kovalainen is second driver , end of story.

  11. I’m sorry guys, but I just can’t say that someone who beat Michael Schumacher in a straight fight in an equal car at the Race of Champions isn’t capable of winning a world championship.

    Kovalainen is a tremendously talented and quick driver who has displayed terrific car control in his time in F1. He’s had a ridiculous amount of bad luck this year. If you take away the safety car at Albert Park and the tire failures at Catalunya and Istanbul (all races where he likely would have scored at least top-4 finishes, and probably a podium in Australia), then he’s probably 3rd in points right now just nine points behind Hamilton. That’s not too bad in his first year with the team.

    Is he as good as Hamilton? No, but that doesn’t mean that he can’t beat him and win world championships, as Alain Prost has shown. (And Massa may show this year.)

    Also, Kevin, there’s one driver you forgot who was rumored to be on McLaren’s list for this year, and who could be that driver who “McLaren is thinking about for 2010.” That man’s name is Sebastian Vettel.


  12. Hamilton usually gets the better strategy so can’t really compare. I’d say Kov is on par with Hamilton as in he can only win when things go his way and having the best car, kind of like Fisichella.

  13. Nick,

    That’s ridiculous to say that Hamilton (and Kovalainen) can only win when things go his way and he has the best car.

    Firstly, it’s damn near impossible to win in F1 when you DON’T have the best car and/or when things don’t go your way. So it’s somehow bogus to imply that the likes of Raikkonen, Kubica (who got his first win precisely because Hamilton and Raikkonen retired due to the pit lane accident), Alonso, or Massa (who is the champion of winning while having a ridiculously awesome car and good luck) are somehow Supermen who don’t need the best car and/or good luck to win. Every driver in F1 does.

    Secondly, have you happened to watch five of the last six races he’s won? At Hungary last year, he beat Raikkonen even though the Ferrari was definitely faster. He just flat out creamed everyone else in the extreme rain at Fuji and Silverstone, displaying by far the best car control on the circuit. At Monaco, Ferrari had the best car (as they had throughout the early part of the year in the slow corners), yet Hamilton was able to outduel them in the rain and the dry/wet conditions and to pull away from them in the final stint under the safety car. And at Hockenheim this year, he was severely disadvantaged by a pit strategy blunder by McLaren, and yet was able to storm to the win.

  14. Martin Whitmarsh’s judgement is VERY true: Heikki seems to be lacking the killer instinct of the true winner. He’s much better in playing the underdog, as btw many of the current drivers (i.e. Webber, Fisi, Trulli, Button, DC, Heidfeld, etc) and win only when the luck strikes unavoidably. A good support driver.

  15. Here’s what Peter Windsor had to say about Heikki in 2004 after he beat both the best racing driver in the world at that point (Schumacher) and the best rally driver in the world (Loeb) to win the Race of Champions:


    Some may not like Peter all that much, but I trust his opinion much more than the vast majority of people in F1. He knows this stuff.

  16. Paige – McLaren may be waiting for Vettel, but it’s interesting to me that Rosberg’s contract at Williams finishes at the end of ’09.

    As for Kovi, I reckon he’s got the stuff. Give him a good car and some team stability next year and he’ll make it a good fight with Hamilton. He’s more than capable of winning a Championship, as is Massa. Funnily enough, Hamilton’s the only (non-Championship winning) driver on the grid to throw one away, yet his ability to win a WDC is never in doubt?

    Come on, they’re all capable of doing it. Even Fisi and DC.

  17. Paige, Lets keep this post about Kovalainen, and not about Lewis again.

    BTW, Keith : You could write an article for 2010 driver line-up, which will definitely be a very riveting point for discussion; given the number of highly-rated drivers without contract then:
    Kimi, Alonso, Kubika, Rosberg, Vettel, Heikki. All top-notch drivers.

  18. Your thoughts on Kovalainen are more optmistic than mine…

    I agree with Sumedh – I simply don’t think Heikki is capable of matching Lewis in terms of raw pace… as unlucky as he might seen, Kovalainen didn’t have to retire while leading (like Massa in Hungary, and like his compatriot Raikkonen many times during his career), and was generally devastated by Hamilton in qualifying, including in Q2, when everyone runs as light as they can…

    The point is: when bad luck struck Kovalainen, he was already underperforming normally worse than Hamilton (like in Melbourne).

    Currently, Kovalainen is far from being the ideal number 2, like Rubens was for so long, because the ideal number 2 needs, at least, to bother his team mate’s rivals, taking precious points from them, and Heikki isn’t even capable of doing that at the time, since he’s almost always behind both Ferraris.

  19. Sumedh,

    I’m the one who has gone to greater lengths than anyone in this discussion to defend Kovalainen’s capability as a driver. I’ve pimped him far more than I’ve pimped Lewis in this. If your complete reading of this discussion doesn’t lead to an alternative conclusion, then screw you.

  20. I think it’s too early to say still. Heikki has shown some real brilliance sometimes, but mostly he has had bad luck in the Mclaren and when he has had the luck he hasn’t quite had the raw speed. That doesn’t mean he won’t come good as his experience grows though.

    I’ve never seen him display the sort of brilliance we’ve seen from Hamilton, Alonso, Raikkonen or even Massa though.

  21. I was wondering what the hell Sumedh was reading in Paige’s post, re lewis.

    I’m of the camp that considers Heikki “the dogs”, but Ron dennis always has his favourites, Kimi over JP, Senna over prost, Haka over Coultard.

    and of course, Lewis over EVERYONE, even his own family.

    its Ron’s pursuit of perfection that lets Mclaren down

  22. Sush,

    I am referring to Comment#13, which describes in loving detail, Lewis’s 5 wins; and mentions Heikki’s name only once, that too, in brackets. So, I said, let this post stick to Heikki since we are supposed to be discussing Heikki here, and not Lewis again.

    Paige, the complete reading of this discussion leads me to the conclusion that you are far more interested in a swearing battle with someone than involving in a constructive argument. I have no interest in retaliating to your comment#19

  23. yeah i saw that comment, i also noticed the name drop, but the bulk of her argument was how good Heikki was and is, regardless of how many times Lewis’ name is stated. By that logic the winner of a race should be decided by how many times James Allen says their name

    considering her swearing and slanging match, i still find paige’s argument for and against yourself more compelling, but then again i like retaliation.

    I’m off to watch monster truck racing, at least hillbillies respect each other (i’m aware of the irony).

    fact for the day, the bigfoot monster truck (Ford) uses 1 gallon of petrol every 9 yards.

  24. Kovi is much better than he appears. That McLaren is built around Hamilton – more so with every day. I’m disappointed he signed for another year, it’s career suicide I reckon.

  25. “…McLaren considered Mark Webber, but cast him aside when he made one blunt remark too many…”
    Could you please remind me what did he say?

  26. I think Kovalainen will regret signing for McLaren, as he’ll not get a chance to win a championship there while Hamilton is around.
    He’s probably on a par with Rubens Barrichello, or maybe Jarno Trulli, in that he is a good racer, kind-hearted, but maybe not a championship contender.

  27. hamilton 4 vertigo. i love him

  28. Vertigo
    Hamilton? The best race driver ever? I am curious, do you say that because you are so far up his ass you cant see any of the other drivers? There are and have been many drivers better than Lord Lewy and anyone who thinks he is ‘the best’ clearly knows nothing.

    And as for your comment of ‘Ferrari’s are shockingly bad’? Bit of a stupid thing to see considering they are the most sucessful team in F1 and in the past 10 years have won 8 constructors championships. Not to mention the fact they are still leading the championship now. You have some serious issues mate.

  29. sumedh,

    That’s ridiculous. I participated in a constructive argument the whole time until you called me out for something for which I did not deserve to be called out. I’ve been very focused on Kovalainen the whole time and have put forth the most forceful argument in his favor throughout this discussion. The reason I came at you with a swear is because I don’t like being personally accosted when I don’t deserve to be.


    I’m a guy.


    How can you say that someone “knows nothing” just because they think a particular driver you don’t like is the best out there? There’s plenty of room to intelligently argue that that particular driver is currently the best driver in F1. Whether or not he’s the best ever is a tougher argument, but it’s an argument that can be made intelligently.

  30. Kovalainen is full of talent , but at the same time he is a “Mr. Nice Guy” , nothing wrong as I’m also one of those sort of people , but I can’t think of an F1 world champion who was also a Mr. Nice Guy , so he will always come close , but never win , especially as long as he is Lewis’ team mate , who just has the edge on him.

  31. Paige,
    If Hamilton is the best driver ever, like Vertigo stated, then how many championships has he won? How many races has he won compared to the true greats? Where’s his record breakers? Lap records? Schumacher retired 2 years ago and still holds many lap records. Oh and one more question, if hamilton is the best, then why does he seem to destroy his tryes, so much in fact that act turkey he had to pit 3 times, and why all the pit lane incidents?

  32. Once again the stupidity continues in the pursuit to throw mud at Hamilton. This blog is about Heikki and whether He can cut it despite despite whatever obstacles in his way.


    How many records did the Lord Schumacher break in his first 2 years of racing. Does the concept of time and proving yourself not exist in your stratosphere.

    Focus on the issue people FOCUS…

  33. I think Kovi has a lot of potential and time will tell as to how much of that potential he’ll be able to extract to his advantage.

    Most impressive that I’ve seen was his blistering qualifying pace at Silverstone. Just a shame that eh wasn’t able to translate that pace into victory.

    The only thing that I can see as his ‘possible’ downfall is the fact that he seems like such a nice guy. All the champions of late have had a certain level of ruthlessness / arrogance which has aided them in the quest for the title. Maybe that will grow on Kovi…..but if it doesn’t…..he may have to work on that.

  34. Heikki has some real skills and is capeable of winning races on pure pace, and he has had some bad luck this season. However, at the moment, I don’t see him as a true championship contender. He’s a very nice guy and good-natured, but I don’t see him beating Hamilton on a consistent basis anytime soon. I think down the line someday, he can emerge as a title contender, but it will most likley need to come with a different team and not McLaren.

  35. Paige, just a constructive tip- be careful using Wikipedia as a reliable source for any type of discussion, as most anyone can access the site and make changes to entries. Have you heard this same type of info about McLaren looking at Vettel fromm any other reliable sources of F1 journalism?

    On that note, I know McLaren was looking for a driver of German nationality to replace Alonso last season, in part to keep Mercedes happy- perhaps this contributed to the SV talk. Relating this to Heikki, I think it’s very funny that so many people try to link Rosberg with McLaren- has Nico shown anyone else here anyhting that would suggest McLaren would be any better off with him than they are with Heikki now?

  36. The best driver one can compare Kovi with is G. Berger. It is not so much that he is a bad driver as it is an enormous bad luck to be paired with someone much better than he is. Besides looking inadequate, it is killing his self-confidence.
    In time: Webber suffers from a severe case of foot-in-mouth disease (I love that one – just read it in another blog). Since it leaves him with a single foot to operate the peddals, we will never know whether he would have been any good in case he had both feet on the ground.

  37. I think Kovalainen is a much better driver than we have seen so far but not as good as Hamilton. My guess is he will spend two or three seasons at McLaren, learn everything he can and go challenge Lewis in another car.

    There is one reason Rosberg is not at McLaren. His father told him not to do it. Keke Rosberg used to run a karting team where Nico and Lewis were team mates and Lewis beat him hands down. If Nico couldn’t cope with him in a team run by his father there is not a whole lot of sense taking him on in F1 this early in his career. Why ruin his reputation when he can go to other teams with easier team mates and maybe find a slight car advantage to challenge for a championship. There are quite a few drivers who could win championships given the right car and the right team mate and it is massively difficult to pick those that will succeed. Hamilton at McLaren looks like a safe bet to win one at some time. But in the late 80s early 90s if you had told anyone you thought Damon Hill had a championship in him they would have thought you were mad. In reality it was only because Schumacher was not penalised for taking him out in 94 that he didn’t win two.

  38. to amy

    it will probably be a while before someone can break the lap-records of F1 cars with V10s and traction control…do you even watch F1 or are you just here because you’re just mad…maam please stop…

    …on to the topic of the article, after watching Heikki’s start today in Singapore, I’m just not convinced of his consistency…

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