Having not set a foot out of place all race, Heikki Kovalainen was ultimately left to reflect on the crushing disappointment of being forced to retire 17 laps into the Japanese Grand Prix with engine failure – whilst the Finn was looking odds-on for the top step of the rostrum.
Kovalainen has triumphed only once this season – his first with McLaren-Mercedes – when he took the chequered flag in Hungary back in August, and though he lay just third throughout the early laps around the Fuji Speedway, he was due to run somewhat longer than Fernando Alonso and Robert Kubica narrowly ahead of him before pitting. That is, until Lady Luck decided to abandon him…
“Today started with so much promise and ended so disappointingly,” the 26-year-old mused afterwards. “I made a good start and, although I ran wide at the first corner, I still managed to slot in behind Robert and Fernando.
“I was feeling pretty confident about catching them both because the car was feeling just fantastic and then, all of a sudden, the engine stopped. That was a real pity, because our reliability has been fantastic all season.
“Nevertheless, my pace today was good and I head to China feeling positive that we can once again show the same sort of pace we had this weekend.”
Kovalainen's failure to score – at a circuit where twelve months previously he had first ascended the podium in Formula 1, with a stirring drive to second place for Renault in the teeming rain – compounded what in the end turned out to be a thoroughly miserable day for McLaren.
That, combined with team-mate Lewis Hamilton's first corner error, knock from Felipe Massa and drive-through penalty, meant the Woking-based outfit departed the land of the rising sun point-less – and having slipped seven markers adrift of Ferrari in the F1 Constructors' World Championship with just two meetings remaining on the calendar.
“Heikki was in a very strong position, fuelled significantly longer than the cars around him, when he suffered an extremely rare engine failure,” explained McLaren team principal Ron Dennis.
“We will investigate the engine failure on Heikki's car tonight and tomorrow in Brixworth,” added Mercedes-Benz Motorsport Vice-President Norbert Haug. “Unfortunately this failure happened today when Heikki had a chance of winning; he was third, had the speed and was on the superior strategy.
“I am sorry for him and the team – it's bad that things like this happen even if you previously performed reliably for two years – but we will work hard to make sure that such a failure will not happen again.”