McLaren & Me: Heikki Kovalainen

Heikki Kovalainen

In the next edition of McLaren & Me, we catch up with former McLaren driver, Heikki Kovalainen, for an exclusive insight into his time at with the team. Heikki faced the difficult challenge of being team mate to Lewis Hamilton for two seasons, but the popular Finn forged his own place in McLaren’s history by winning the 2008 Hungarian GP.

My Renault season in 2007 was a difficult year for me, but it ended strongly. However, Flavio Briatore had already committed to take Nelson Piquet on board for 2008, and it looked like there wasn’t going to be any room for me at Renault. 

There was a strong option with Toyota, and then McLaren happened quite suddenly. I think it was the beginning of December when they announced that Fernando Alonso was going to leave. McLaren contacted Flavio, and suddenly I had McLaren and Toyota options available! It was quite an easy decision to make, and I called the Toyota boss and said, ‘Thank you very much but I must go for McLaren.’ Within a few days of the drive becoming available I signed a deal with Martin Whitmarsh.

Obviously I was very excited. Coming from Renault, where we had a difficult year and had been in the middle of the grid, suddenly I had an opportunity with one of the best cars. I was thinking about being able to fight for victories straight away, and if everything goes well, I should have an opportunity to fight for the championship. That was the target from the beginning, so it was exciting times.

I was obviously aware that Lewis was going to be the toughest team-mate so far in my career, and he was going to be difficult to beat. Also his relationship with McLaren was stronger than mine, and I knew I had to do a lot of groundwork to be on the same level. But I was confident that given a little bit of time that I would be able to do that. I was never concerned that I wouldn’t be able to match his pace. I’d been test driver at Renault, and had been a team mate with Fernando, and I felt that I was able to compete with those kind of drivers. So I wasn’t afraid of Lewis, but I knew the challenge was going to be tough. I wasn’t under-estimating him, for sure.

The MP4-23 was very good, it was the best car I drove in my F1 career. It was sort of an evolution from the previous year’s car, so they were expecting it to be very competitive. And over the winter they were able to improve it, so it was really very good. The engine was very strong. Straight from the first test it was evident that it was going to be a battle between Ferrari and us, if things went normally. 

In Australia I qualified third, and in the race I was running second behind Lewis. Then the safety car ruined it for me a little bit, as I hadn’t done my second stop yet. Lewis had already pitted and afterwards I heard there was a bit of a discussion on the pit wall, because the team wanted to stop me because of the Safety Car risk. But my race engineer was adamant that I should stay out, because I was doing good laps, and I think he saw an opportunity for a win. But then the Safety Car came out and I remember being at the front of the queue, having not done my stop. 

I overtook Fernando for fourth a few laps from the end, but on the straight when I took off my visor tear-off I hit the pit-lane speed-limiter button with my knuckles. Suddenly I lost power in the middle of the straight and I didn’t know what was going on for a few seconds, and immediately Alonso passed me back. Eventually I finished fifth, but I set fastest lap, so it was a reasonably good start to the season.

In Malaysia I qualified quite well but I got a penalty for blocking somebody in qualifying, so I dropped a few positions on the grid. But I had a strong race and finished third behind the Ferraris, so it was good to get on the podium very early.

Bahrain was another race where the performance was slightly better than the result we got in the end. I flat-spotted a tyre on the first lap when I had a fight with Kimi going into Turn Four, so I lost a bit of time in the first stint. I finished fifth, and set fastest lap again. 

Up to that point the season had gone quite well, and then the accident happened in Spain. I was leading the race, and I remember the team told me to keep pushing, and the next thing I remember is the hospital – I had a four-hour blackout!

They quite quickly figured out what happened. We had a brand new set of wheels, and the wheel has some lacquer or coating at the area where you put the nut. When they tightened the wheel nut the lacquer stopped it going fully tight, so throughout the first stint it slowly opened up. Through that corner the nut came off, the wheel jumped out of its place, and the brake disc immediately machined it in half. And that’s why it exploded, and I went straight on. 

I had quite a heavy concussion, but I was able to do the next race in Turkey, although I had some headaches still. When I went into the FIA medical test I wasn’t 100% sure if I was able to pass it. Already from the practice session the pace felt strong, but I was surprised to qualify on the front row. But I had a collision with Kimi and got a puncture at the first corner, so the race was over almost immediately. That was very disappointing, because I was the only one on a two-stop strategy, and after qualifying we thought we had a really good opportunity to win the race, as I could make the tyres last.

Monaco was again an opportunity, the performance was there, good enough to be in the top three or top four. But I had to start from the pit-lane as we had a faulty steering wheel, and at Monaco when you start from the pit-lane, it’s game over. Canada was a struggle with pace, even when everything worked for some reason I struggled to get the best out of the car, so that was a disappointing weekend. It was a crucial point in the championship where I lost a lot of ground, and it dropped me out of contention.

France was a steady race to fourth after a grid penalty. I was a bit disappointed not to finish on the podium, as I was stuck behind Jarno Trulli at the end, and I couldn’t pass him. Then at Silverstone the pace was good all weekend, and it was the only time in my McLaren career that I had the advantage in qualifying – I had less fuel than Lewis – and I qualified on pole. Then on Sunday it rained. I didn’t really have the same pace as Lewis, so I dropped back and finished fifth. Another weekend when there was promise, and I just didn’t have the performance on Sunday that I should have had.

In Germany the pace was okay, but the Safety Car hurt us. I had to let Lewis through in the last stint – he lost out even more with the Safety Car. He wasn’t able to get past me, but in the end they asked me to let him go. And that stage it was quite clear that Lewis had more points, so I had to support him. It was the first time that they asked me to move over.

Hungary was a semi-good weekend performance wise, I think I qualified on the second row. I was running third behind Massa and Lewis. Lewis had problems with the tyres all weekend, he was wearing out the left-front more than I was, and the tyre just wore through and he had a puncture. I moved up to second and then a few laps from the end I saw a car parked on the straight. It was a bit fortunate for me, and Massa deserved to win that race, but for once luck was on my side.

I felt I could have won a race earlier that season, and I felt we had all the ingredients to do it when people hadn’t dropped out, and a couple of times earlier in the season I lost a podium or a victory because of some unfortunate things happening. It was obviously a very nice feeling, especially just before the summer break, so I was hoping that it would be a turning point.

I was fourth in Valencia, and then retired with a gearbox problem at Spa. At Monza I had strong pace all weekend, and then in qualifying in the rain in Q1 I was easily quickest, but then in Q3 I didn’t quite nail my first lap at the driest point, and it started to rain again. I was second but I should have qualified quite comfortably on pole, as we had really good performance in the rain. Vettel managed to do the lap early on straight out of the box.

In the race Seb was strong. We started behind the Safety Car, and my right-front brake disc became glazed, so it was basically not working. I only had three brakes available pretty much throughout the race, so that affected me a little bit. I finished second but I should have won that race, we had the performance all weekend. So another lost opportunity!

In Singapore I was hit by Kubica and finished out on the points. Then Fuji was another race where I had good pace. In the race there was a battle between Lewis and Massa and myself and Kimi, I think we all went off in the first corner. Later I was running third behind Alonso and Kubica and I remember thinking this will be my race now, I’ve got them covered, and then the car stopped. One of the rare Mercedes failures, and really unlucky, because a win would have been good there.

I remember in China after the first runs I was on pole, but I wasn’t able to improve on my second run, and I dropped to fifth. At the race start my front tyres were fitted the wrong way round. I had massive understeer and the car wasn’t turning, and I was telling the team I had some kind of problem. At the stop we added five turns of front wing, but by putting the tyres the right way round suddenly I had the sharpest car I’ve ever had! I retired with a pneumatic problem. 

It was nice to be part of Lewis’s championship win in Brazil, and obviously we all wanted a McLaren driver to win. I was told to support Lewis as much as I could. In fact in the race I did hold up Timo Glock pretty much through the middle stint. 

We had a signal on the pit wall. I think we normally had bright yellow numbers and letters on the pit board, and they told me if they go orange it means slow someone down. In the middle of the race I saw a colour change so I was holding Timo up in that stint and trying to build a gap in front of me in case something happened. It was then quite a coincidence that Lewis passed Glock just before the finish line. So I played a little bit of a role in that!

During the winter the team was confident ahead of the 2009 season, and everybody felt we were going to have a strong car. The regulations had changed, but we felt we were on top of them. However, going to the first test, we were already struggling.

We were still waiting for the new spec wing, so we were running the old spec. We took some downforce away to estimate the levels we would get with the new wing. But once it arrived a test or two later we just didn’t have the grip at all that we thought we were going to have, and straight away we knew that we were nowhere. So we were in recovery mode from the beginning.

In the first two races I was out on the first lap. I had an accident at the start in Melbourne, and then I lost it in Turn Four in Malaysia. The car was difficult to drive, and I was trying too hard, and I needed to settle down a bit. In China I finished fifth, so that was heading in a better direction again. 

But we were struggling more or less everywhere, and just didn’t have the pace. We were just trying to bring new parts all the time, and the car was slowly improving. They figured out what was wrong aerodynamically with the car, and Lewis got the big package in Nurburgring for the first time, and he had a strong race there. 

I think I got it in Hungary, and after that we had much better performance. However, I just wasn’t able to extract from the car as much as Lewis was. It was an important time, and I obviously needed some results at that point.

Lewis won in Hungary, and he was ahead of me too many times. I mentally wasn’t sharp enough to really try to get more out of it. Also Lewis got some parts ahead of me, and maybe I let it affect me a little bit when he got slightly better service, if you like. More than the first season I felt I was the number two, but I should have ignored that and just got on with the job. I wasn’t driving as well as I was before.

Martin Whitmarsh kept me up to date. He told me early on that they will look for another driver, they will look for Kimi, and they were also looking for Jenson Button. But both of those drivers might not be available, and Martin said to me if not, then you’ll be the third choice. It became apparent that Kimi wasn’t going to come, so it was only Button, and they were awaiting news on what he was going to do. In fact, I was in America and it was Thanksgiving Day when Martin called me to say, ‘We have signed Jenson.’

My results weren’t good enough, and I was kind of expecting it. But I felt that I could do better, and maybe the team would give me another shot. But, in a team like McLaren, when things don’t go well they change things, and that’s what they did.

I had a great opportunity, and I felt it started very well. But quite often in motor sport and in life small things can change your direction and change the outcome. During 2008 there were small details, particular races that kind of went in the wrong direction, and I wasn’t able to get the results I deserved. I could have won more races and things could have worked out quite differently in the long run.

McLaren taught me a lot, and I learned a lot from Lewis as well. As a team they were able to help me and guide me. I became a better driver, but I think I lost a bit of confidence during the second half of 2009, and I felt I needed to go back to the starting point and start again with the information that I had after those two years. That’s the reason I went with Caterham, to give myself time to build something again.

But I have good memories of McLaren, and it was the best team I ever worked with, a really great team and a powerful team. Sometimes nowadays when I see them struggling I feel sorry for them, and I hope they can come back to where they should be.