Heikki Kovalainen is under pressure to perform to ensure that he hangs onto one of the plum seats on the F1 starting grid in 2010 – that is the clear message coming from McLaren-Mercedes team principal Martin Whitmarsh, who confessed that in terms of drivers, 'some nationalities from a marketing perspective are more convenient'.
Rumours have been doing the rounds within the grand prix paddock for some time that this season – Kovalainen's second at McLaren – could also be the his last, as the Finn has generally failed to build upon the patchy but promising form he demonstrated during his maiden campaign with the multiple world championship-winning, Woking-based outfit last year.
Whilst defending F1 World Champion Lewis Hamilton has won a race in the unloved MP4-24 – in Hungary last time out – the driver of the sister car has yet to even set foot upon the podium in 2009, and has tallied just nine points to the Briton's 19.
Moreover, the 27-year-old has found himself out-qualified by the Stevenage-born ace on six occasions out of ten thus far this year – although twice he has started inside the top half dozen, in consecutive grands prix at the Nürburgring and Hungaroring last month. Whilst stopping short of stating that Kovalainen's future is hanging precariously in the balance, Whitmarsh did suggest that for the man from Suomussalmi, it could be case of shaping up – or shipping out.
“Heikki is doing, as a team player, a fantastic job in this team,” the Englishman told Crash.net Radio
, during a Vodafone McLaren-Mercedes 'phone-in' session ahead of this weekend's European Grand Prix in Valencia, where last year Kovalainen took the chequered flag fourth, more than half a minute adrift of runner-up Hamilton.
“By his own evaluation he hasn't raced as well as he would have liked, and we would have liked him to, this year. I was frankly just talking to him on the subject. He's working hard, and all of us want to see Heikki get some good results this year. That will ensure that he remains with us – and that's certainly our wish.
“His goal going into Valencia is to win, and I think he is capable of winning the race this weekend. He has been a good qualifier and has done some good qualifying times, and he is capable of qualifying well and winning this race. That is what he's going to focus on, and then on Sunday evening he will start thinking about Spa. That's what we want him to focus on – not all the speculation.”
Acknowledging that such speculation is entirely 'normal' in the middle of an F1 season, Whitmarsh went on to assert that the team is not involved in talks with any other drivers at present, despite whispers that Williams ace Nico Rosberg is being lined-up to take Kovalainen's place, at the behest of German engine-supplier Mercedes-Benz. To a similar end, Force India's Adrian Sutil and out-of-work BMW-Sauber star Nick Heidfeld have similarly – albeit less frequently – been mentioned in connection with the second berth at McLaren in 2010.
“It's true to say that we haven't confirmed our driver line-up for next year,” Whitmarsh added, “but contrary to the speculation, we are not in active discussions with any other drivers at the moment. Obviously some nationalities from a marketing perspective are more convenient, but I think McLaren continues to have the policy and strategy that we'll get the best two drivers that we can in our cars every season, and that's what we're going to continue to do.”