Heikki Kovalainen has hit back at those who claim there is too great a speed differential between the leading teams and the F1 2010 newcomers in the wake of his terrifying high-speed accident with Red Bull Racing star Mark Webber in the European Grand Prix – arguing that double world champion Fernando Alonso was even further from the pace when he joined the grid back in 2001.
There has been much discussion since the start of the campaign about the gap between the slowest of the traditional competitors and the three new entries Lotus, Virgin and Hispania (HRT) – and that debate intensified in the wake of the incident in Valencia, when Webber found himself caught out by how early Kovalainen braked into Turn Twelve on lap nine of the race, with his RB6 slamming into the rear of the Lotus-Cosworth T127 at almost 200mph and somersaulting into the air before coming back down again, righting itself and hurtling into the tyre barriers at scarcely-abated velocity.
Webber's former team-mate and 13-time grand prix-winner turned BBC F1
pundit David Coulthard subsequently contended that 'huge closing speeds are a dangerous thing on the race track' and that 'you don't want to have more than six, seven, eight kilometres-an-hour difference between the fastest and the slowest cars' [see separate story – click here
] – but Kovalainen disagrees.
“Given the kind of accident that Mark had and even myself, it was great to see that we both walked away from the shunt – that's testimony to the work that the FIA has done over the years together with the drivers,” the Finn told Crash.net Radio
. “We work a lot with the GPDA (Grand Prix Drivers' Association) trying to push for safety, and it was another example that it has worked perfectly. We just need to keep working on that even more. It was a freak accident, but hopefully we can maybe learn something from it too.
“I don't see [the discrepancies in closing speeds] being a problem. When Alonso drove a Minardi, I think the difference was much greater than it is now between the top and the back of the queue, so for me it's not an issue.”
Indeed, Lotus has progressed from lapping some 5.2 seconds shy of the benchmark during qualifying for the curtain-raising Bahrain Grand Prix at Sakhir in mid-March to just 2.4 seconds in Canada – more than halving the initial deficit, and making far more substantial inroads than have either HRT or Virgin – and in Montreal, Kovalainen got to barely two tenths of out-pacing the Sauber of Kamui Kobayashi in Q1. In evidence of the former McLaren ace's point, for the same race back in 2001, then rookie Alonso was 3.7 seconds adrift of pole position.
However, whilst that escalating momentum means sights are now firmly set on looking forwards rather than behind – as Lotus seeks to increasingly distance itself from Virgin and HRT and instead take the fight to some of the more established names further up the pecking order – Kovalainen warns against expecting too much too soon, even if he acknowledges that the combined experience of himself, team-mate Jarno Trulli and the Anglo/Malaysian outfit's chief technical officer Mike Gascoyne is a significant boon.
“I'm sure it helps a lot,” the 28-year-old Suomussalmi native mused of the trio's contribution. “We can all bring a lot to the team, we know the direction in which we need to go and where we want to be and [team principal] Tony Fernandes has given everyone an environment in which they can perform at the maximum level. This is working well. We have a small group of people and we've been very efficient so far.
“We've improved at a quicker rate than I thought we would, and the team is functioning really, really well in terms of operation. It's going well, so I'm pretty pleased about that and now we just need to take the next two or three steps to go a bit further. Points were never an aim – the target has been to be ahead of the other new teams and to keep improving throughout the season and finishing races. To score points, there's still quite a long way to go...”
TO LISTEN TO THE INTERVIEW IN FULL: CLICK HERE