Heikki Kovalainen will return to the scene of his first podium finish with McLaren-Mercedes at Sepang this weekend – and while he knows he is highly unlikely to repeat that feat twelve months on, he is at least hoping for better fortunes than he endured in Melbourne last weekend.
As if McLaren's struggles with its new MP4-24 challenger weren't enough, having taken the start just twelfth in the Australian Grand Prix, Kovalainen found himself implicated in – some would say the catalyst for – the first-corner mêlée that sent a number of drivers scurrying back to the pits for various part replacements, and put the Finn out of the action on only the opening lap with damaged front suspension.
Heading to the Malaysian Grand Prix this weekend hoping to make amends, the 27-year-old can nonetheless take comfort from the fact that this time last year he out-performed team-mate Lewis Hamilton weekend-long around the Sepang International Circuit – and it is a track he clearly enjoys.
“Sepang is a challenge,” Kovalainen acknowledged, “because it requires several compromises to get the best set-up. There are plenty of long straights, where you ideally need lower downforce, but that gives the car a tendency to slide too much through the high-speed corners. The best corners are turns six and seven – the fast left-right esses behind the pits.
“In the car, you've not only got to find the optimum balance, but also make sure the brakes and cooling are efficient, otherwise you'll be in trouble before you get to the end of the race. The only difficulty for me is the heat; coming from Finland, we often see the same temperature-readings – but with a minus in front!”
Hamilton effectively provided McLaren with a get-out-of-jail-free card in Albert Park, with a superb if somewhat fortuitous performance to take third place in the final reckoning from 18th on the grid. Whilst acknowledging that the result had been more than could possibly have been hoped for, team principal Martin Whitmarsh does not expect to benefit from a similar slice of luck in Sepang.
“Despite a good result in the race, our performance in the Australian Grand Prix was not what we would like it to be,” the Englishman confessed, “and the reality is that this weekend's race in Malaysia is unlikely to offer a significant improvement in fortunes.
“Nevertheless, we are still pushing to introduce performance to the car – the close proximity to the opening race means there won't be many large changes to the car, but there will be several upgrades to existing components.
“For us, the mission is clear – we must introduce lap time to our car faster than our rivals to enable us to firstly catch the leading runners, and then to be able to compete against them. It's a task we take incredibly seriously, and we are confident that progress will be made sooner rather than later.”