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Biography

SEASON INFORMATION
15/08/2013

 

Biography

 

Heikki Kovalainen first attracted attention in 1999, when, aged 18, he finished 3rd in the opening round of the European Karting Championships, having already finished runner-up in the Finnish Championship.

He remained in Karting in 2000, this time winning the Finnish title, in addition to the Scandinavian crown. As well as finishing 3rd in the Monaco Kart Cup, the youngster also contested - and won - the Paris Bercy Elf Masters.

In 2001, Heikki moved up to single-seaters, contesting the British Formula Renault Championship. Two wins, two poles and three fastest laps, were enough to give him fourth place - in addition to the prestigious 'Rookie of the Year' award.

That same year, the Finn made his F3 debut, finishing 8th in Macau, and then contesting the Korea Grand Prix just a few weeks later.

The following year, the 'young gun' finished third in the British F3 Championship, with five wins, including the prestigious support race at the British Grand Prix at Silverstone. He also finished second in Macau, and fourth in the Marlboro Masters at Zandvoort.

In 2003 Heikki contested the World Series by Nissan, finishing runner-up. That year had also seen him make his F1 test debut, driving the Renault R23 at Barcelona in early December and then the Minardi just a couple of weeks later.

2004 saw the Finn win the World Series title, fighting off stiff opposition from Tiago Monteiro, Enrique Bernoldi and Narain Karthikeyan.

Throughout the year, the youngster also assisted with the development of Renault's R24, working alongside Fernando Alonso, Jarno Trulli and Franck Montagny.

Heikki attracted serious attention late in 2004 when he won Champion of Champions event at the Race of Champions. To win the title he had to beat both 2004 WRC Champion Sébastien Loeb and seven times Formula 1 World Champion Michael Schumacher. Almost overnight, everyone knew the name Kovalainen.

2005 saw Heikki contest the new GP2 series with Arden Motorsport. However, despite leading the championship for much of the year, he was beaten 'at the wire' by Nico Rosberg. Nonetheless, the youngster had done enough to secure the role as test and reserve driver for the Renault F1 team in 2006.

Days before Renault officially named Heikki as its test driver, team boss, Flavio Briatore gave the game away, saying: "He is the future of F1." Coming from the man who guided Michael Schumacher and Fernando Alonso to championship glory, this was high praise.

With Fernando Alonso heading to McLaren for 2007, there was fierce speculation throughout 2006 as to the French outfit's line-up for the new season. Though several drivers, including Kimi Raikkonen, were linked with the number one seat, there never appeared to be any doubt that Heikki would be in the second car.

In mid-June, with the French team fearing it might find itself up the proverbial creek without a paddle, it was revealed that Giancarlo Fisichella would be retained for a third season. It came as no surprise when shortly afterwards Heikki was confirmed as the team's second race driver.

Fast and intelligent much was expected of the Finn in 2007, indeed Pitpass Editor Chris Balfe predicted that the youngster would win a race in his first season.

Thankfully, editor Balfe stopped short of making a Bob McKenzie type wager that might have seen him running naked around a race track, which is just as well, for the Finn's debut race was a nightmare, one to be forgotten as quickly as possible.

"I think everybody was watching on TV," said Flavio Briatore of Heikki's Melbourne weekend. "I don't need to protect anybody. It was rubbish! If I tell you it was good, I am a complete idiot. It was no good.

"When you start like that, you don't have any problem in getting better," he added. "You have plenty of space to improve."

The Finn was equally unimpressed: "My first Grand Prix was a disaster," he wrote in a column for the BBC. "The whole race was a bit of a mess and I'm going to try to forget it as quickly as possible." Thankfully, Melbourne was the low point, and after that the Finn slowly, but surely, began to improve, taking a point at the very next race.

After the high of 2005/2006, 2007 was a great disappointment for Renault, one of the teams hardest hit by the move to a control tyre supplied by Bridgestone. Indeed, it was soon clear that far from being able to challenge McLaren and Ferrari for wins, the French outfit was no match for BMW.

As the season developed, so Heikki improved, following a fourth and fifth in north America with a string of seven finishes in the points culminating in a superb second place in Japan.

While fellow rookie Lewis Hamilton stole the headlines, Heikki got on with the job, doing the best he could - under the circumstances - finishing seventh in the championship, one place and eleven points ahead of his highly experienced teammate, Giancarlo Fisichella.

However, this wasn't enough for the French outfit, which, with the imminent return of Fernando Alonso, opted to drop the Finn in favour of Nelson Piquet Jr. However, Heikki wasn't out of work for long, for two days after Renault announced its line-up for 2008, the Finn was named as Hamilton's teammate at McLaren.

While everyone was aware of the special relationship between Hamilton and McLaren, many were also aware of the special relationship that team boss Ron Dennis enjoys with Finnish drivers. What with Keke Rosberg, Mika Hakkinen and Kimi Raikkonen, Heikki had a lot to live up to, and then there was the fact that he was stepping into a car vacated by Fernando Alonso.

Having developed and matured in the latter stages of 2007, much was expected of Heikki in 2008. However, it would be fair to say that he didn't quite live up to expectations.

Yes, there was a lot of bad luck in terms of reliability, and then there was the fact that the team often appeared to use the Finn as a 'guinea pig' for his teammate. However, even when things were going well the youngster didn't always help himself.

In Australia he accidentally hit the pit lane speed limiter, thereby handing a position to Alonso. In Bahrain he flat-spotted a tyre on the first lap, which was to lose him ground to the Ferraris and BMWs. In Belgium he lost eight places due to a poor start, subsequently colliding with Mark Webber for which he was handed a drive-through.

For most of the season, and at most of the tracks, the MP4-23 appeared to suit Hamilton's driving style, the Finn proving notoriously difficult on his tyres, particularly at the rear. Heikki was suffering most in the entry to corners, and in the way he used his brakes and applied the power afterwards, Hamilton wasn't.

Then again, McLaren made some dreadful mistakes, not least in China when his tyres were marked incorrectly so that the left tyre was installed on the right-hand side of the car and vice versa, meaning that the tyres were spinning in the wrong direction, causing understeer. The Finn also suffered Mercedes first (race) engine failure since 2006.

On the plus side there was pole at Silverstone and the win, albeit largely fortuitous, in Hungary. Many, however, feel that he should have been able to give Vettel a real run for his money at Monza.

Retained for 2009, Heikki said that he intended being a little less hard on himself, claiming that he was his own fiercest critic for much of 2008, particularly when he failed to qualify well.

To be fair, particularly in the first half of the season, the MP4-24 was a dog of a car, reckoned by many to be the worst car on the grid. However, while Lewis Hamilton got on with the job, Heikki clearly struggled, the Finn never really looking convincing.

Throughout the season realising what a disaster the MP4-24 really was, the Woking outfit continued to introduce all manner of updates desperate to close the gap to its rivals. However, while Hamilton was able to make full use of this, taking two wins and three other podium finishes, Heikki was never really in the picture.

In 2008, not once - despite the equipment at his disposal - was Heikki able to complete a 1-2 with his McLaren. And in 2009 also he was unable to come close to his illustrious teammate.

In addition to a general lack of pace - surprising considering the fact that the Finn is widely regarded as one of the fastest drivers out there - there were the numerous mistakes. In his defence, however, one has to point to the fact that the likeable youngster also suffered more than his fair share of failures.

It came as no surprise therefore when McLaren opted not to retain Heikki for a third season, then again, the signing of Jenson Button certainly raised a few eyebrows.

On December 14, Heikki was confirmed at Lotus F1 for 2010, one of the three brand new teams entering the sport and in most respects the most plausible.

Coming from a state-of-the-art outfit such as McLaren, the Finn experienced a major culture shock on joining Lotus. However, he settled down and mucked in, looking a lot more relaxed than he had at Woking.

While Mike Gascoyne has a reputation for building reliable cars, this wasn't the case with the T127, hydraulics proving to be the real Achilles heel. Consequently, Heikki and his Italian teammate struggled, indeed, in Spain, he encountered a gearbox problem whilst waiting on the grid and consequently failed to take part in the race.

The causes of his numerous retirements were varied, however, the most memorable were the incident in Valencia when he was hit from behind by Mark Webber, sending the Australian's Red Bull into a horrifying back flip, and the late fire in Singapore, the Finn wisely opting to park on track and fight the blaze himself rather than drive into the pits.

Mostly out-shone by Trulli in qualifying, Heikki looked the more convincing on Sunday afternoons. His best result in a difficult season was twelfth in Japan, a result that secured his team the all-important tenth place in the constructors' standings.

It would be fair to say that in 2011, Heikki, despite the lack of results, would make it into most F1 observers Top Tens, indeed, it's surprising that one of the bigger teams didn't snap him up.

He out-qualified Trulli sixteen times, and in Germany Chandhok, three times getting the T128 into Q2. In the races also, he continued to impress, even if the Lotus reliability continued to infuriate.

While there was frustration in Canada, Britain and Hungary, where he was sidelined by technical issues, he refused to let things get to him, fighting back with performances such as Monza and Japan, where he finished ahead of the Sauber duo. Furthermore, let's not forget Spain, where he out-qualified the Force India pair, only to crash out the following day.

In India, he ran as high as tenth, before finally finishing in fourteenth, ahead of Brazilian veteran Rubens Barrichello, many of these results due not only to his excellent qualifying performances but also his superb starts.

With none of the big teams poaching him, it was a no-brainer that Tony Fernandes retained him for a third season, the Malaysian admitting that his Finnish driver had played a huge role in the team finishing tenth in the Constructors' Championship in its second season and thereby entitling it to a share of the official prize purse, thought to be worth as much as twenty million euros.

With the recruitment of Renault's sporting director, Steve Nielsen, and McLaren aerodynamicist, John Iley, Fernandes and his partners was assembling an impressive little squad in Norfolk, and it was widely thought that Heikki could be just the man to help the newly named Caterham outfit to go that one step further.

Initially slow, the Caterham CT01 gradually began to pick up pace only to ease off again in the latter stages of the season. Although at times the team appeared to be closing the gap to the back of the midfield, until the final laps of the season finale in Brazil the team looked in danger of losing out in the standings to Marussia, a move that would have been disastrous financially.

In Bahrain Heikki made it through to Q2, eliminating Michael Schumacher in the process, doing it again a few weeks later in Valencia.

While reliability was good - the team completing 93.9% of the laps that comprised the 2012 season it wasn't enough to seriously allow the team to challenge for points. Indeed, had it not been for KERS the team might have struggled even more.

While Heikki dominated on Saturdays, out-qualifying Petrov 13-7, generally it was the Russian who performed better in the races ultimately saving the team's bacon by bringing his car home eleventh in Brazil and thereby allowing Caterham to leapfrog Marussia in the Constructors' Championship.

That said, Heikki's consistency was amazing, the Finn enjoying a string of 19 races in which he finished the race - albeit with no points. On the other hand, once it was clear that there was little on offer for 2013 - hard to believe when one considers that at one stage he was being touted as a replacement for Massa - his head seemed to drop.

Making it fully clear that he had no intention of paying for a drive, and with the cream of the seats now filled, things look bleak for the Finn as the first of the 2013 launches draws nearer.

Though he tweets on a daily basis regarding his strict training programme it is looking increasingly likely that he won't be taking part in the 2013 Formula One championship.

Statistics - at the end of 2012 Season

Drivers' Titles: 0
Seasons in F1: 6
Grand Prix: 109
Wins: 1
Poles: 1
Fastest Laps: 2

Best result in 2012: 13th (2 times)
Best qualifying 2012: 16th (2 times)
Worst qualifying 2012: 22nd (USA)

2012: Out-qualified Vitaly Petrov 13 times
2012: Out-qualified by Vitaly Petrov 7 times

2012: Completed 1153 out of 1192 laps (96.7%)
2012: Finished 19 times from 20 starts (95%)

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