Heikki Kovalainen

Heikki Kovalainen

19/10/1981

<font face="Tahoma" size="2">Born in Suomussalmi, Finland, Kovalainen's career began in karting, much like that of many other F1 racers. His karting career lasted from 1991 to 2000, during which time he finished runner-up in Finnish Formula A in 1999. Then in 2000 he became Nordic champion and won the Elf Masters. He was also elected Finnish Driver of The Year.

Kovalainen began his car racing career in the British Formula Renault championship, which fellow Finn Kimi Räikkönen had won the previous year before moving straight into Formula 1 with Sauber. Kovalainen's apprenticeship in the junior categories of motor sport was more conventional, but was remarkable in that he used Renault power at every step along the way. He finished fourth in the championship with two wins, two pole positions and three fastest laps, and earned the Rookie of the Year award.

Kovalainen attracted the support of the Renault Driver Development programme and in 2002 moved up to the British F3 series with Fortec Motorsport who used Renault engines. He became one of the most competitive drivers on the grid by the second half of the season and all five of his wins came in the final nine races. With three pole positions, three fastest laps and third overall in the championship behind Robbie Kerr and James Courtney he was again Rookie of the Year.

He also demonstrated strong form in the international F3 rounds, with second place at the Macau Grand Prix and fourth place at the Zandvoort Marlboro Masters.

Kovalainen moved into the Renault-owned World Series by Nissan in 2003 - but faced a tough team mate at the Gabord team in Franck Montagny. Montagny had already spent two seasons in the World Series by Nissan and won the title in 2001. Montagny won the title with nine wins to Kovalainen's one.

The Finn stayed in World Series by Nissan for 2004 but moved to the Pons team and won the championship ahead of Tiago Monteiro, with 192 points and six wins.

Kovalainen competed in the 2004 Race of Champions at the Stade de France in Paris. He became the first non-rally driver to win the Henri Toivonen Memorial Trophy and earn the title "Champion of Champions", beating World Rally Champion Sébastien Loeb in the finals. He also participated in the Nations' Cup alongside countryman Marcus Grönholm. Their team finished in second place after Kovalainen's Ferrari 360 Modena broke down in the finals, ironically, losing to Loeb and the French team. Kovalainen's feat included winning over Loeb in a WRC car, although he had never even sat in a rally car before, and over the Ferrari Formula One star Michael Schumacher in a Ferrari 360 Modena.

He returned to the Race of Champions in 2005, but was knocked out in the semi-finals by Tom Kristensen.

Heikki made another impact in the Race of Champions in 2006, winning the Nations Cup together with his fellow Finnish driver Marcus Grönholm; despite this, he was again eliminated in the semi-finals by Mattias Ekström by a mere 0.0002 seconds.

In 2007, Heikki was strong again. He and his partner, Marcus Gronholm, carried Finland to the final of the nations cup,where the strong German pairing of Michael Schumacher and Sebastien Vettel beat them. Heikki beat Vettel in the individual race, before crashing right on the line in the next round. He crossed the line out of control, and Andy Priaulx pipped him. Kovalainen probably would have won had he not crashed.

In 2005, Kovalainen entered the GP2 Series, the new 'feeder' series for F1 and the successor to Formula 3000. Kovalainen won the first ever round of the new championship and led the championship with the Arden International team. But in the final four rounds a resurgent Nico Rosberg took over the lead of the championship and Kovalainen finished second, 15 points adrift.

Kovalainen, Franck Montagny and José María López tested the Renault R23B F1 car at Barcelona in December 2003. Kovalainen also tested for Minardi, but Renault made him second test driver alongside Montagny.

Kovalainen was promoted in Montagny's place at the end of 2005 and spent the 2006 season in a full-time testing role, logging over 23,000 km of testing.

Renault's lead driver Fernando Alonso had signed for McLaren for the 2007 season, and Renault elected to promote Kovalainen in his place, which they confirmed on September 6, 2006. Team boss Flavio Briatore said: "With Kovalainen, I hope to find the anti-Alonso."

Kovalainen made his race debut in at the 2007 Australian Grand Prix. His performance was a huge disappointment; he made several mistakes during the race and finished 10th. Flavio Briatore told the press after the race that it was a disappointing debut for the young Finn. He said that hopefully the real Heikki will show up next time.

Kovalainen scored his first World Championship point in his second Grand Prix at Sepang, Malaysia, and followed this with a disappointing race in Bahrain. He then secured seventh place in Barcelona, outperforming team mate Giancarlo Fisichella. He was well down the order in Monte Carlo and never looked like a points finish was a possibility. However, he came back strongly and finished in the points again in both North American races.

During the Canadian GP, he made mistakes throughout practise, including one at the exit of turn 7, and hit the barrier, which was reminiscent of Jacques Villeneuve. He crashed at the first chicane in qualifying, and damaged his rear wing significantly, and failed to make it through to the second session. He made progress early on, and then halted. He seemed to have a lot of luck with the strategy, and every time the safety car came out it was beneficial to him. A podium was within his grasp, but he could not find a way past Alexander Wurz of the Williams, who also started towards the rear of the pack. Kovalainen was pulling away from fellow Finn Kimi Räikkönen in his Ferrari in the closing stages, which was a real confidence booster for the team.

In the United States GP at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, he also looked impressive. He qualified well,and a good start saw him go past Räikkönen to go into fifth place. He held Räikkönen off, and led the race at the end of his first stint because those cars ahead of him had already made their pit stops. He re-joined behind the Ferrari, but looked comfortable in sixth place until Nick Heidfeld's BMW Sauber broke down in front of him, and Heikki took over Heidfeld's fifth place. He stayed there until the chequered flag, and team-mate Fisichella failed to score points.

The second half of the European season failed to produce such strong results, but it did keep the points tally ticking over. During the French GP at Magny-Cours, there would be disappointment. He was with his team mate until the sharp Adelaide hairpin, where Jarno Trulli's Toyota made an optimistic lunge up the inside of Kovalainen which wrecked both drivers' races. Kovalainen had to go back to the pits for some repair work and subsequently overtook just a few backmarkers. Seventh place at the British GP was no disaster, seeing as he beat Fisichella. The Nürburgring only gave Kovalainen a point, although a better strategy may have seen him on the podium. The Hungaroring only brought him one point, although Istanbul Park netted three, with Kovalainen coming ahead of Robert Kubica. Kovalainen led the Grand Prix there for a while, when those ahead of him outright pitted earlier than him. Seventh place at Monza was a fair result. The team took a gamble at the next race in the Spa-Francorchamps, with Kovalainen on a one stop strategy when his challengers for the rear end of the points were all on two stop strategies, which included the BMW's of Heidfeld and Kubica (who was sent ten places down the grid due to an engine change), Nico Rosberg and Mark Webber. A good start from Kovalainen saw him become a mobile chicane for all of these except Webber. The gamble did not pay off, although Kovalainen held off Kubica in the closing stages to secure the final points position. Better was to come at the Japanese GP at Fuji Speedway, where, despite not making it through to the final qualifying session, Kovalainen raced well. While most of his rivals got into trouble in one way or another, Kovalainen did not and held off Kimi Räikkönen to take second place and his first podium in Formula One.

On 14 December 2007, it was confirmed that Kovalainen would drive the second car for McLaren Mercedes for the 2008 Formula One season alongside Lewis Hamilton. Kovalainen is the fourth Finn to race for the Woking based team, following Keke Rosberg, Mika Häkkinen and Kimi Räikkönen, all whom have won the World Championship, albeit Mika Hakkinen being the only Finn to win the World Championship in a McLaren Kovalainen began his first official testing session with McLaren on January 9 2008 with Pedro de la Rosa at Jerez, and continued the next day with Lewis Hamilton. Kovalainen's best laptime was 1:19.752, losing to Hamilton only by 0.061 seconds. On the third day of Valencia testing Kovalainen posted the fastest lap of the day with 1:11.000, a new lap record on the Valencia track for a V8 engine. On the third day of Jerez testing Kovalainen posted the fastest lap of the day with 1:17.974, a new lap record on the Jerez track for a V8 engine.

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