Heikki Kovalainen has vowed to prove his critics wrong in F1 2010, acknowledging that he 'didn't get the best out of McLaren' during his two seasons spent at the Woking-based outfit, but insisting that there are not 'any areas I particularly need to improve' upon in terms of his driving.
Off the back of a title-challenging year in the GP2 Series – ultimately being narrowly defeated by now Mercedes Grand Prix rival Nico Rosberg – Kovalainen staked his claim to a strong future in F1 with an impressive maiden campaign at Renault in 2007, overcoming a jittery and unconvincing start that saw him facing the axe mid-season to bounce back and consistently get the better of infinitely more experienced team-mate Giancarlo Fisichella over the second half.
That being so, great things were expected of his front-running switch in 2008, but from the outset the Finn struggled psychologically to cope with both the speed and the close relationship with the team of Lewis Hamilton in the other side of the garage, with many describing McLaren as the Briton's own personal stomping ground – as Jenson Button may or may not find out this year.
There were also whispers that Kovalainen was regularly sent out with the heavier fuel load of the two in qualifying to ensure that Hamilton started ahead, compromising his grid position and therefore by extension also his opening stint in the race.
The bare statistics do not make for encouraging reading, as Hamilton swept to title glory in 2008 with five grand prix triumphs, five further rostrum finishes, seven pole positions and 98 points. Kovalainen, by contrast, notched up just a sole victory – by default in Hungary, after both Hamilton and Ferrari's Felipe Massa were forced out – two more podiums, no poles and a points tally barely half of his team-mate's on 53.
Already being considered a good 'number two' or 'back-up' driver but no longer a world champion in-waiting, twelve months later some were beginning to wonder whether the 28-year-old – who so famously beat the likes of Michael Schumacher, Sébastien Loeb, David Coulthard and Jean Alesi to 2004 Race of Champions glory and become the first non-rally driver to lift the Henri Toivonen Memorial Trophy on his bow in the annual end-of-season spectacular – had a future on the grand prix grid at all, after being routinely outperformed by Hamilton and ending up with just 22 points to his name and not a single podium as the driver of the sister car virtually dominated the second half of the season.
After being perhaps unsurprisingly shown the door by McLaren, Kovalainen's prospects looked bleak, but Lotus recognised his talent and signed him up to partner F1 veteran Jarno Trulli as the Anglo-Malaysian concern debuts at the highest level this year. He might have gone from a multiple world championship-winning team to a start-up operation, but the man from Suomussalmi is confident of proving that he is not merely on a fast track out of the sport – and that that he has been wrongly maligned for the past two years.
“I don't really care what people think,” he told British newspaper The Sun
. “I didn't get the best out of McLaren, but I don't think there are any areas I particularly need to improve. Some people think I'm a good qualifier and not such a good racer, but that has only been while I was at McLaren.
“If you look at my time at Renault in 2007, my race performances were actually very strong – and I felt I got more out of the Renault than I did the McLaren. Now I am more determined than ever to do a good job for my new team.”
With time being so short and spare parts not yet in plentiful supply, Lotus will be forced to skip the first two pre-season tests in Spain next month, before joining the fray for Jerez and then Barcelona – but Kovalainen is convinced that the team has what it requires to eventually make an impact in F1.
“If we had any problems, the test would be over,” he explained of the parts shortage that has ruled Lotus out of the opening two sessions. “In the third test we know we'll be able to push the car hard. I expect it to be pretty reliable straight out-of-the-box, and then the question mark will be how much performance we have. My aim at Lotus is to get the best out of the team and the car – and I don't see any reason why the results won't come.”