F1 » Heikki Kovalainen
The latest in a long line of talents to hail from Finland, Heikki Kovalainen made his F1 race debut in 2007 with Renault, after a rapid rise through the ranks saw him succeed one Fernando Alonso, but he has yet to live up to his record in the junior ranks following a disappointing switch to McLaren.
Despite having to fill some of the biggest shoes in motorsport, Kovalainen's credentials speak for themselves, the 25-year old going from karting star to fully-fledged F1 driver in under seven years.
The runner-up in the 1999 Formula A Finnish Karting Championship, Kovalainen followed that up by finishing third in the World Championship race the following year amongst other trophies that included him becoming Scandinavian champion, Finnish vice-champion, the Paris Bercy Elf Masters champion and the Finnish Kart Driver of the Year.
With a wealth of experience - and silverware - from karting firmly behind him, Kovalainen did what most Finns have done in recent years and graduate to the lower formulas of racing in Britain, taking part in the Formula Renault Championship and claiming a fourth place finish overall on his debut, scoring two wins in the process.
Indeed, Renault has been a fundamental factor in Kovalainen's career, the French brand creating a youth programme as they began re-establishing themselves in the motorsport arena once again.
Enlisting Kovalainen in their fledgling Renault Driver Development programme, the position helped him graduate to the British Formula Three Championship for 2002 with Fortec Motorsport, the leading user of Renault's Sodomo engines.
Although the units were arguably not as strong as the Mugen-Honda engines that dominated the British F3 field, Kovalainen and team-mate Fabio Carbone got the most of their cars to prove consistent front runners against a dominant Carlin Motorsport, Kovalainen in particular impressing with his five wins and three pole positions, all occurring in the second half of the season on the way to third in the standings.
He even went on to highlight his talent to those that matter by winning the British Grand Prix support race at Silverstone before going on to claim second place in the Macau Grand Prix and fourth in the Marlboro Masters.
Somewhat inevitably, Kovalainen continued to pursue a route up the motorsport ladder and his next venture took him to the World Series by Nissan where he was snapped up by the front-running Gabord Competicion team.
Up against some formidable competition in the shape of Narain Karthikeyan, Enrqiue Bernoldi and Marc Gene, Kovalainen nonetheless defied his inexperience to claim second in the championship standings, taking a win at the Lausitzring, even if he was entirely outclassed by title winning team-mate Franck Montagny.
Nonetheless, Kovalainen had done enough to earn himself a test at both ends of the F1 scale, firstly with Renault and then with Minardi. Subsequently impressed with Kovalainen, it was thought Minardi were chasing him for full-time drive in 2004 under the watchful eye of manager Flavio Briatore in much the same way as Fernando Alonso in 2001.
However, this time, Renault decided to keep tabs on the Finn by signing him to be their second test driver after Montagny. The less intensive role allowed Kovalainen to continue racing, returning to the World Series, this time with newcomers Pons Racing.
With a year of experience under his belt, Kovalainen was the dominant force in the championship throughout 2004, with a mid-season flurry of strong results - including seven straight podiums that included four wins - helping him well on the way to glory over Tiago Monteiro and Jean-Christophe Ravier, claiming a further two wins to cement his supremacy.
However, despite his triumph, the lack of exposure for the World Series meant Kovalainen remained something of an unknown quantity to all but hardened enthusiasts, even if his achievements had done enough to earn him a place in the Race of Champions event in Paris.
Competing for Finland alongside accomplished opposition that included the likes of Michael Schumacher and Sebastien Loeb, most eyes were on a potential head-to-head between the undoubted stars of track and rally racing. Remarkably though, both were humbled by Kovalainen, who firstly dispatched Schumacher in the 'track racers' final and then went on to be crowned champion when he pulled off a coup against Loeb.
Instantly, Kovalainen became something of a sensation having become one of the few people to actually beat Schumacher and Loeb in a straight fight over the year, let alone on the same night.
Sensing a future star, Renault retained Kovalainen for a second season and helped him score a drive with Arden in the burgeoning GP2 Series, where he promptly marked himself out to be championship contender by dominating over the first half of the year. As it happens, Arden were soon overhauled by ART as the leading team and Nico Rosberg eventually got the better of Kovalainen in the championship during a late-season flurry of results.
Nonetheless, with Montagny having served his time as test driver and Renault learning that Alonso would be defecting to McLaren for 2007, Kovalainen was promoted to full-time tester, where he would seemingly be groomed for assuming the Spaniard's racing role over the coming season.
With the ultimate chance to impress, Kovalainen stepped up to the challenge when needed, developing as a driver and learning his way round the team sufficiently enough for the inevitable to finally happen when he was confirmed as Alonso's replacement for 2007.
Not short of confidence, Kovalainen admitted to wanting race wins in his first season, but the championship push in 2006 had taken its toll on Renault and the team was a shadow of the force it had been in 2005-06.
With its 2007 car under-prepared for the switch to Bridgestone tyres, both Kovalainen and Fisichella struggled early on, with the Finn's performance in Melbourne prompting team boss Flavio Briatore to suggest that his brother had turned up instead!
Although the R27 was never going to beat the likes of Ferrari or McLaren - or, as the season wore on, BMW - Kovalainen's results improved steadily, with his first point coming in Malaysia and further top eight finishes following regularly thereafter, culminating in a sparkling second in the rain of Fuji.
That was enough to out-point team-mate Fisichella and finish a place above the Italian, in seventh overall, potentially ending the veteran's F1 career. However, it was not enough to keep Kovalainen on board at Enstone for another season.
The return of Fernando Alonso and decision to pair him with rookie Nelson Piquet Jr prompted suggestions that Kovalainen might be too much of a threat after the Spaniard's tempestuous relationship with Lewis Hamilton but, whatever the reasons, Heikki found himself dropped by the regie
There were others, however, who did not perceive the Finn as either a threat or washed up, and he was soon on his way to Woking as Alonso’s replacement alongside Hamilton. It wasn’t an easy switch, though, with his new team-mate on a mission to make up for missing the world title in his rookie year and seemingly having all the luck going at McLaren.
Solid points results in the opening three rounds were followed by high-speed crash in Spain, the result of a wheel-rim failure, and a series of disappointing results before fourth in France re-awoke his season. A maiden pole position at Silverstone might only have yielded fifth place – having been muscled out by Hamilton at the first corner – but, after a similar result in Germany, Kovalainen finally broke through into F1’s winners’ circle after luck turned his way in Hungary.
With Hamilton struggling, he was the best placed to take advantage of Felipe Massa’s engine failure three laps from home, but the result did not provide the springboard many had anticipated, with only second at Monza standing out for the rest of the year – and even that disappointing as Sebastian Vettel claimed victory for Scuderia Toro Rosso.
There was no doubt that the Hamilton-Kovalainen tandem would continue into 2009 but, with McLaren seemingly having taken its eye off the new-look F1 while propelling the Briton to title glory, pre-season performance was been sadly lacking in the MP4-24, suggesting another trying year for Heikki.
So it proved, with just a solitary fifth place finish from China keeping him on the scoreboard in the opening eight races. As McLaren gradually developed the car, however, points finishes became more regular, with six scoring finishes preceding another downturn at the end of the year. All the while, however, team-mate Hamilton was racking up wins and podiums, and the exit door always appeared the most likely route for Kovalainen.
Even as new world champion Jenson Button was suiting up as Hamilton's new team-mate, Kovalainen was getting another chance, with the reborn Lotus marque signing him as partner to veteran Jarno Trulli as it joined the grid for 2010. With Mike Gascoyne at the technical helm and Malaysian backing greasing the wheels, the team had high hopes despite only making the final two pre-season tests, but provided the low-key environment that Kovalainen neededs to kick-start his career.
Although the team's T127 was never going to be a threat for points unless there was mayhem among the front few rows, Kovalainen and Trulli plugged away, keeping their noses ahead of fellow newcomers Virgin and HRT as long as the car allowed. Although niggling reliability problems persisted to the end of the year, Lotus emerged as 'best of the rest' behind the established opposition, with Kovalainen's twelfth place in Japan ensuring that no only did he end the year classified ahead of Trulli, but that Lotus picked up the valuable tenth place in the constructors' table, ensuring it a share of the seasonal pay-out.
Although not officially confirmed at the turn of the year, Kovalainen was listed in an unchanged line-up for 2011 by the FIA, as Lotus looked to up its game in season two after securing the use of Renault engines and Red Bull rear-end technology.
Despite the team suggesting that it would be a threat for points, however, the gulf between itself and the midfield remained, albeit narrower than in 2010. Kovalainen showed flashes of the T128's potential by occasionally making it through to the second phase, and his starts often put him ahead of those midfield rivals the team was targeting, but the Finn's best result was 13th in Italy, which left him a place behind team-mate Trulli - who managed two such finishes - in the overall standings as Lotus again secured tenth and a handy financial reward.
Unlike twelve months earlier, there was no delay in confirming his place in the team for 2012, although the Finn would be wearing Caterham F1 logos after an ongoing naming row with Lotus Renault was eventually worked out. With a tweaking of the rulebook and the introduction of KERS to the CT01, the Finn hoped to be looking for points, so sitting 22nd overall in the drivers’ standings, and fourth among those not to score a point, was not a season going according to plan.
Kovalainen had the upper hand at Caterham, out-qualifying new team-mate Vitaly Petrov 14-6 and generally finishing ahead of the Russian on race day, but his best result of 13th - which he achieved twice - was bettered not only by Timo Glock’s twelfth in Singapore, but also by a simialr result for Marussia rookie Charles Pic, before Petrov then went and secured an eleventh place that saved the day for Tony Fernandes’ team in Brazil.
Kovalainen’s performances appeared to tail off a little towards the end of the year, and it will be a sad way for the Finn to bow out of F1 should rumours that he is to be replaced by a better-funded driver prove true. Despite being without a major backer – and having instructed his new management team not to turn him into a ‘pay driver’ – the former Renault and McLaren driver had still been linked to seats at Ferrari, McLaren and Sauber during the summer, but looks set to find himself on the sidelines come round one of the 2013 campaign.