Just like a year ago, Heikki Kovalainen is without a contract for the upcoming season and his chances to stay in F1 are unclear. The last two races at Lotus as replacement for Kimi Raikkonen were rather difficult. His only option for 2014 seems to be Caterham but he faces competition from several other drivers, who can offer some sponsorship.
At times like this it’s perhaps easy to forget the many brilliant drives that Kovalainen has delivered for every team he has driven for. Here is a recap of his greatest races.
2007 Canadian Grand Prix – 4th
The 2007 F1 season had not started well for the Finnish rookie. The pressure to deliver was high as he had replaced none less than Fernando Alonso at the Renault team. However, the car was not nearly as competitive as in the team’s championship years and Kovalainen’s own performances also were not good enough in the first races of the year.
The first two days of the Canadian Grand Prix did not suggest that this weekend would be any better as Kovalainen crashed twice during free practice and qualifying. Moreover, he was forced to start last after a massive engine failure in the third practice.
But a chaotic race, which included four safety car periods, and an inspired drive by Kovalainen resulted into an excellent fourth place finish. “I seemed to spend a lot of the afternoon overtaking other cars, but we had changed the set-up before qualifying to give me better straightline speed and that definitely paid off,” admitted Kovalainen after the race.
2007 United States Grand Prix – 5th
Just one week later, Kovalainen delivered an even stronger performance. Having qualified a strong sixth, he overtook Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen at the start and even shortly led the race before his first pit stop.
Kovalainen was not able to keep Raikkonen behind during the pit stops but he gained one place when Nick Heidfeld retired because of a hydraulics problem. „This was another strong result for me, and I am starting to get some good momentum now,” said Kovalainen.
2007 Japanese Grand Prix – 2nd
Already before the Japanese Grand Prix, Kovalainen had established himself as the leading driver in the team against Giancarlo Fisichella. He had recorded six consecutive points finishes (points were awarded to the top eight then) but the best was yet to come.
Just like Canada, this was another chaotic race. The rainy conditions forced the race control to start it behind a safety car. There were spins, collisions and crashes all over the field. Alonso crashed out of the race and so did Mark Webber as Sebastian Vettel ran into the back of the Red Bull during the second safety car period. On a day when almost everyone seemed to be making mistakes under very tricky conditions, Kovalainen did not put a foot wrong. He ran a very long first stint and briefly led the race again.
In the final laps, Raikkonen had caught his compatriot but couldn’t find a way past. „I think this was a good way to do it: in difficult conditions, at a tricky race, fighting all the way to the end and beating Ferrari in a straight fight. I am very happy with my race,” Kovalainen summed up his performance.
2008 Malaysian Grand Prix – 3rd
Kovalainen’s McLaren stint was not a success and he could not challenge Lewis Hamilton, his phenomenal team mate, often enough. But the start of his relationship with the team was actually very promising.
In the previous race, the Australian Grand Prix, the Finn had been denied of a well-deserved podium finish by an untimely safety car period. In Malaysia, the qualifying was far from perfect as he earned a five place grid penalty for blocking Heidfeld and Alonso. Still, he was 8th on the grid, having outqualified Hamilton.
The race day went much better. Kovalainen made up one place at the start and climbed up to fourth at the first stops. Felipe Massa’s retirement let him score his maiden podium for McLaren.
2008 Hungarian Grand Prix – 1st
There were several races in 2008 where Kovalainen could have been in the hunt for victory but misfortune often played its part. For instance, he had to start from the pit lane at Monaco after the car’s engine had stalled on the grid and Raikkonen’s front wing punctured Kovalainen’s left rear tyre at the start of the Turkish Grand Prix.
In Hungary, he finally nailed it. Kovalainen was second on the grid but Felipe Massa made an excellent start, overtaking both McLarens and leaving the Finn third. After Hamilton got a puncture and Massa suffered an engine failure, Kovalainen was there to take the lead.
It is true that Kovalainen lucked into his maiden (and so far only) F1 victory. But it is also undeniable that it was only a fair compensation for all the times when the car or some circumstances let him down. “It could have happened in many other races, there was always an opportunity but it didn’t happen,” he said.
2010 Chinese Grand Prix – 14th
When the new Lotus team joined the grid, the expectations were understandably low and even finishing a race was considered to be a success. After all, the team had been started from a scratch only a few months ago and with a tiny budget.
But already the fourth race of the season offered them an opportunity to beat one of the established teams and Kovalainen grabbed it. He had qualified behind Jarno Trulli, his new team mate, but stayed out on dry tyres when a lot of drivers made the wrong decision to switch to intermediates.
Kovalainen even ran sixth at one point. He inevitably slipped down the order later but still managed to finish nine seconds ahead of Williams’ Nico Hulkenberg. It was a nice reward for a faultless drive under difficult conditions.
2010 Canadian Grand Prix – 16th
Kovalainen managed to outqualify his team mate and the other “new guys” and was only two tenths behind Sauber’s Kamui Kobayshi. He ran as high as 10th before the first pit stops and managed to keep Vitaly Petrov behind for nine laps at the end of the race, even though the Renault driver had fresher tyres and Robert Kubica’s pace suggested that the Renault could go up to five seconds a lap quicker than the Lotus.
Even though that wasn’t his highest finish of the season (Kovalainen finished 12th in Japan a few months later), it was probably the most eye-catching performance of the year. “It’s been a great weekend, and I’m really pleased for the whole team with the result today. We finished ahead of Petrov and lapped the other new guys,” said a happy Kovalainen after the race.
2011 Chinese Grand Prix – 16th
2011 was probably Lotus/Caterham’s best year. The team was convincingly ahead of both other new teams, managed to annoy the established competitors now and then and there was a lot of optimism within the team.
The Chinese Grand Prix marked the first time Lotus managed to beat two midfield cars. As usual, Kovalainen outqualified Trulli and the increased air temperatures on Sunday as well as a clever two-stop strategy helped him finish ahead of Williams’ Pastor Maldonado and Sauber’s Sergio Perez.
Kovalainen was overwhelmed by the result: “That is our best ever performance. It’s not the highest place we’ve had but today we beat two midfield cars in a straight fight so I am very happy, with my performance and the performance of the whole team.”
2011 Korean Grand Prix – 14th
After a qualifying lap that Kovalainen himself had described as the best of the year, he made a great start from 19th and was already 15th at turn two. He was unable to keep the quicker cars behind in the first stint but a well-executed strategy helped him finish ahead of both Saubers and just a fraction behind Renault’s Bruno Senna.
Kovalainen believed it was the team’s strongest ever race: “We knew there were a few cars ahead who would struggle to get to the end, and if I’d had another half a lap I would have passed Senna for sure. As it was we finished ahead of both Saubers on pace and strategy and that’s a very good feeling.”
2012 Monaco Grand Prix – 13th
It was obvious that Caterham could not meet their own expectations in 2012. The team was still unable to fight with the established teams or battle for points finishes and beating Marussia and HRT was the only satisfaction it could get.
Still, the season had its highlights and the Monaco Grand Prix was one of them. Kovalainen made a good start from 18th and got ahead of McLaren’s Jenson Button. Despite his best efforts, Button was unable to overtake the Caterham. The pit stops did not change anything and both drivers made contact as Button tried to pass the Finn on lap 71. Button’s front right tyre got punctured and he was forced to retire, while Kovalainen had to pit for a new front wing after another clash with Sergio Perez but still managed to finish 13th.
“When Heikki passed Jenson out of the pits, that was definitely the most exciting moment in my Formula 1 career and something that I will remember forever,” said Caterham boss Tony Fernandes after the race.