It may be the track that threatened to send his 2008 challenge crashing off-course, but the Circuit de Catalunya in Barcelona holds no fear for Heikki Kovalainen – with his McLaren-Mercedes team anticipating this weekend's Spanish Grand Prix to be 'a true test for the future balance of power' in Formula 1 this year.
Kovalainen has just four points on the board from the opening four 'flyaway' races of the 2009 campaign in the top flight as McLaren continues to strive to extract performance from its aerodynamically-afflicted but slowly improving MP4-24 – whereas at the same stage twelve months ago he had notched up 14.
The Finn looked odds-on for a strong result in the Catalan capital last season – his first with the Woking-based outfit – taking the lead briefly during the first round of pit-stops only for a wheel rim failure to pitch him off the track at high speed and heavily into the tyre barriers. Fortunately, he would emerge largely unscathed, if significantly shaken up. He is hoping for an altogether happier outcome to the race this time around.
“Going back to the scene of last year's accident doesn't change anything for me,” the 27-year-old urged. “I really enjoy this track – I had a great race to fifth here in 2007 and I love the high-speed corners, where you've got to push hard to get the maximum from the car. It's also a circuit where you need to find the perfect balance to look after the tyres – and I really enjoy trying to find the best compromise for the race.
“Our pre-season test at Barcelona was not very encouraging, so we are going into this race with realistic expectations, but I'm optimistic the whole team can deliver once again this weekend.”
Indeed, McLaren languished woefully off the pace around the Circuit de Catalunya in the build-up to the current campaign only just over two months ago, but the multiple world champions do have form under the Spanish sun, with no fewer than three one-two finishes in the past eleven years. Last year Lewis Hamilton was the team's sole finisher, taking the chequered flag third behind the dominant Ferrari duo of Kimi Raikkonen and Felipe Massa.
“The first four flyaway races within only five weeks have been turbulent and downright demanding for everyone in Formula 1, and particularly for us,” acknowledged Mercedes-Benz Motorsport Vice-President Norbert Haug. “The field has moved closer together than ever before in Formula 1 history. Unfortunately, we are still not competing in the right position, and the beginning of the European Formula 1 season in Barcelona will be a true test for the future balance of power.
“I expect an extremely difficult race. We are in the middle of an intensive process of catching up and, in comparison to our competitiveness in the previous two seasons, we are still far from where we need to be. Our team is working extremely hard to achieve more significant improvements in aerodynamics and particularly in downforce, but to do so we still need more time.”