Spain Flashback 2008 - Kovalainens lucky escape 08 May 2009
Last year in Barcelona Ferrari took a comfortable one-two with pole-sitter Kimi Raikkonen leading home team mate Felipe Massa in majestic style. But while the Italian teams dominance brought them 18 points, the biggest headlines of the Spanish Grand Prix weekend were about the high-speed crash that befell McLaren driver Heikki Kovalainen.
Kovalainen had gleaned 14 points from the opening three races, including a podium in Malaysia, and was anxious to keep his team mate Lewis Hamilton in sight and clinch his debut win. But Friday at the Circuit de Catalunya saw the Finns weekend get off to a poor start, with oil pump problems in the morning and a throttle control issue after lunch limiting him to just 18 laps of practice
Saturdays final practice was more productive, but in qualifying it was Hamilton and the Ferraris that had the edge and the best Kovalainen could muster was sixth. In a light Renault, Fernando Alonso was a real contender, but eventually had to give best to Raikkonen for pole. With Massa third, BMW Saubers Robert Kubica fourth and Hamilton fifth, the grid was a mixed bag, boasting excitingly close times.
Kovalainen left the circuit that night disappointed, but with a car he described as competitive, and hopeful of being able to go for it on Sunday. And so he did, a strong start ensuring he maintained his sixth place, despite his relatively heavy McLaren. Up front a charging Raikkonen led from Massa who had immediately taken second-place from Alonso, and Hamilton who had overtaken Kubica after the lights for third.
As the frontrunners pitted, the fuel-laden Finn found himself inheriting the lead on Lap 21, but it didnt last long. The next time around, his car lunged off the circuit at Turn Nine and hit the tyre wall at speed. Although afterwards he could remember nothing of the accident, an investigation later revealed that a manufacturing fault on his cars left-front wheel had caused the tyre to deflate, destroying the steering linkage.
As a consequence of this fault, the clamp load that attached the wheel was not to specification, explained the team. In running, the consequent loss of load caused the wheel to fret and distort, leading to its eventual failure.
With one wheel completely out of control, the Finn was powerless to steer the car. McLaren subsequently established that his speed was approximately 240km/h when his front-left tyre deflated, about 130km/h when he hit the tyre barrier, and that he experienced a massive 27g deceleration. It was a huge accident, and understandably, a lengthy safety-car period followed as the stewards attempted to extricate the MP4-23 from the wall - and the Finn from the car.
Eventually Kovalainen was stretchered away to the medical centre, waving to the crowd as he went. A brief initial examination ruled out serious injury, and he was then airlifted to the Hospital General de Catalunya. Back on track the race continued, with an unfazed Raikkonen eventually leading home a contented Massa, a convincing Hamilton and a jubilant Kubica. Respectively, they finished 3.2s, 0.9s, and 1.5s apart. Behind them Mark Webber brought his Red Bull home fifth, ahead of Jenson Button's Honda, Kazuki Nakajima's Williams and Jarno Trulli's Toyota.
Following the podium ceremony, everyones thoughts were with Kovalainen, but the news from the hospital was positive, with team boss Ron Dennis revealing that the Finn had no broken bones and -following CT scans - no head injuries. Although he was kept in overnight for observation, further tests on Monday morning went well and he was discharged in the evening in good spirits, complaining of nothing worse than a slight headache and a stiff neck.
Nevertheless, with the Turkish Grand Prix under two weeks away, both he and the team were concerned he may not be well enough to race. The Finns recovery, however, was remarkably rapid and by the end of the week he had left Spain for Finland and was back training for the Istanbul Park race.
"The next stage for me is the fitness test at the track in Turkey on Thursday with the FIA, he commented in the build-up to the race. I cant wait to get back into the car and race with the team next weekend, but at the end of the day that decision is out of my hands, the FIA will make it based on safety grounds only."
He and McLaren neednt have worried. In testimony to Kovalainens supreme fitness - and excellent Formula One safety standards - he passed the FIA test with flying colours and took second on the grid for the Turkish Grand Prix after out-qualifying team mate Hamilton. Quite a comeback and one that would be followed by his first race victory just a few rounds later in Hungary.