2007 Rookie Preview - Heikki Kovalainen 13 Mar 2007
In the second part of our look at the new faces for 2007, we retrace the career path of Heikki Kovalainen, the man who has the unenviable task of stepping into Fernando Alonsos shoes at Renault.
Following in the footsteps of Finnish forebears, Mika Hakkinen and Kimi Raikkonen - and with an ice-racing father to boot - Heikki Kovalainen seems to have been born to be a racer. And as soon as he was allowed a licence - aged 10 - he became a regular at national and international karting events.
After steadily making a name for himself, the young Finn eventually hit the big time in 2000, winning the prestigious Elf Masters kart race at Bercy. Named Finlands Driver of the Year that same season, Kovalainen then left his karting days behind him and switched to single-seaters and the 2001 British Formula Renault series.
The move proved to be an out-and-out success for the 20 year-old. Two race wins in his debut season saw him take Rookie of the Year honours. Too ambitious to rest on his laurels for long, Kovalainen was promptly signed to Renaults driver development programme and made the switch to British Formula Three to race in a Renault-powered car. The risky switch paid off.
Though Kovalainens car was by no means the fastest, he finished third in the championship and, with five wins to his name, once again claimed the moniker Rookie of the Year. In F3s international events too, he was no slouch. Putting in mature performances in both the Marlboro Masters at Zandvoort and the Macau Grand Prix, he finished fourth and second respectively.
Impatient as ever, Kovalainen moved on again in 2003. But after flitting about so much, this time he made a conscious decision to settle down and win a championship, something which had so far eluded him in single-seater racing. Opting for the esteemed World Series by Nissan, it took just two years for the gifted Finn to realise his dream.
Second in 2003, a year later he claimed the title, beating amongst others Tiago Monteiro and Narain Karthikeyan. The Nissan crown opened several doors, not least Kovalainens first drive in a Formula One car. Invited to test eight times for Renault, the Finn impressed with his natural speed and strong technical feedback. A stunning victory over Michael Schumacher in 2004s Race of Champions event was another cause for celebration.
But a permanent foothold in Formula One racing remained elusive and in 2005, Kovalainen signed to drive in GP2, the new feeder series for Grand Prix aspirants. Against stiff competition, he made a strong start to the season, winning several of the opening rounds. Although he missed out on the title, finishing runner-up to Nico Rosberg, the season ably demonstrated his abilities.
As a result, after five years with Renaults development programme and with the influential backing of manager/team boss Flavio Briatore, Kovalainen was rewarded with a full-time testing role with the French team for 2006. As official reserve driver, he spent the next year covering 18,000 kilometres in the championship-winning R26, honing not only the car, but also his driving and development skills. The team were suitably impressed - so much so that for 2007 he was asked to take over one of the most sought-after seats in Formula One racing - that vacated by McLaren-bound world champion Fernando Alonso.
Also see: Lewis Hamilton and Adrian Sutil.