F1 Fanatic guest writer Journeyer looks back on the career of McLaren driver Heikki Kovalainen – including that famous victory over Michael Schumacher.
As we approach the end of the season, there are doubts over the future of Heikki Kovalainen. It was just two years ago when he scored his first podium here with arguably his best drive to date. And he has a Japanese fan club too! In fact, they’ll be helping us look back at the career of Kovalainen.
2003 – After many promising seasons in the lower formulae (most notably second in Macau in 2002), Kovalainen moved to the World Series by Nissan. He took one win in that inaugural season (at the Eurospeedway) to finish second overall, but it was his teammate Franck Montagny who won the title. Here’s some amateur footage of Heikki’s winning weekend.
2004 – The first time Kovalainen’s name hit the mainstream was during the 2004 Race of Champions. And in the ultimate breakout moment, he beat Michael Schumacher! Not only that, but he also went on to beat Sebastien Loeb and be crowned that year’s “Champion of Champions”. Many thought the up-and-coming Finn was someone to look out for.
2005 – After winning the WSN title at his second attempt, Kovalainen decided to join the inaugural season of GP2. He was locked in a season-long duel with Nico Rosberg for the championship. He had some magnificent drives (like this winning drive in Turkey from seventh on the grid), and came to the last round only a point behind. But a terrible weekend in Bahrain handed the title to Rosberg.
2006 – Kovalainen took a year off from racing to be Renault’s third driver. But he wasn’t completely idle, testing the car and driving it at PR events. One of them was in 2007, when he drove the R26 on the Top Gear Test Track – and blew everyone’s minds.
2007 – He was soon promoted to a race seat, replacing the departing Fernando Alonso. His rookie season was a tale of two halves. The first half was very challenging, with Heikki barely able to score. But after a drive from last to fourth in Canada turned his season around. By Japan, he found himself second, having to defend from a charging Kimi Raikkonen. Heikki’s nerve held, and he stayed ahead to the flag.
Heikki soon found himself going up against Michael Schumacher again in the Race of Champions, this time as part of the Nations Cup. And once again, Heikki beat him! Murray Walker is on commentary.
2008 – Heikki then moved to McLaren for his second season, again replacing the departing Fernando Alonso (as an indirect consequence of Spygate the previous year). If Alonso got pipped by Hamilton, Heikki would find it tougher. Here he is chasing down the Rebault of Alonso in Australia.
Kovalainen’s low point that year was the horrific crash he suffered in Spain, after a mechanical failure. He was lucky not to be injured.
He has the curious distinction of being the 100th Grand Prix winner when he took his debut win in Hungary. It may seem a bit of a fluke (after Hamilton then Massa fell out of contention), but Kovalainen stayed out of trouble and was there to pick up the pieces. In the words of Ron Dennis, “welcome to the world of winning.”
2009 – Year two with McLaren has been very difficult. After starting with a difficult car, McLaren managed to improve it over the course of the season, and Hamilton has taken full advantage to win two races so far this year and contend for two others. But Heikki has yet to step on the podium this season. His qualifying lap at Monza to put a heavy car fourth has arguably been the highlight of his season so far. Unfortunately, an awful first lap quickly dropped him out of contention.
So what does the future hold for Kovalainen? Perhaps this video gives us part of the answer:
Many say that Kovalainen and McLaren just hasn’t been a good fit, and that Kovalainen is quicker than he currently seems. If Heikki wants to prove that right, he’ll probably need to do it with another team in another car.