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Exclusive interview with Heikki Kovalainen 19 Sep 2006

Heikki Kovalainen (FIN) Renault Third Driver.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 15, Italian Grand Prix, Preparations, Monza, Italy, 7 September 2006

At first glance Finland seems an unlikely birthplace for a Formula One driver. On the edge of the Arctic Circle, the Scandinavian state has no major tracks, no auto industry to speak of and temperatures not exactly conducive to motor racing. Yet still it continues to produce greats such as Keke Rosberg, Mika Hakkinen and Kimi Raikkonen.
How? Perhaps the explanation is ‘sisu’, a uniquely Finnish concept that defines a state of mind allowing one to override any obstacle. We asked Heikki Kovalainen, Finland’s latest hopeful, to explain his ascent to Formula One racing with Renault…

Q: You’ve been named a Renault race driver for 2007. What effect will this have on you?
Heikki Kovalainen:
I am very much looking forward to my first Formula One season, and to be starting it with a top team. But personally I don't think it changes anything at all. I will carry on doing the same things I have done all those years - and that is racing. I will be driving the same way, working with the same team, and I will try to improve and listen to their advice to have the best preparation I possibly can for my first grid in Melbourne.

Q: What do you think makes Finnish drivers so successful? Could it be the mysterious ‘sisu’?
Probably. It's our way of never giving up. Maybe it is our ability to stay calm when the going gets tough and that we are more neutral no matter whether we had a good race or not. Maybe we even have less emotions - probably that is what helps.

Q: Looking back on your career to date, it seems you’ve had a pretty smooth road from karting, through Formula Three and GP2, and then onto Formula One racing. As a member of the Renault Driver Development programme you were spared the search for sponsorship that Formula One aspirants normally have to endure. Was it luck or shrewd decisions that brought you together with the right people?
It's been a little of both. I have been with Renault since 2002 and every year we tried to go a bit further. Naturally you have to win some of the important races early in your career to get the attention of the decision makers and so you could say I was very lucky. But when people refer to my young age I see that Fernando (Alonso) is as old as I am and he is already world champion so everything is relative.

Q: The team has given you plenty of time to grow and develop. How important has that been in reaching the position you are in now?
Very much. After my first year in the Renault program at the end of 2002 I told them that I felt ready for a Formula One cockpit, but they held me back telling me that there is so much more to learn. And it was true. Flavio (Briatore) knows how to work with drivers and I know now that he was right as I see the difference - in 2002 I felt that I was ready, but now I know (I wasn’t). Probably if 2002 would have worked I would be out by now.

Q: To what extent did countrymen Keke Rosberg and Mika Hakkinen boost your own career in terms of blazing a trail for Finnish drivers?
If, then only a little. In my whole career so far I have never looked at other drivers as I always tried to find my own way. And when I was younger I was interested more in rallying, as it was something that actually happened in Finland.

Q: You will be stepping into some big shoes next year. Are you going to be the next racing sensation Flavio pulls out of his hat, after his successes with Michael (Schumacher) and Fernando?
We don't know that yet. We have to see a few races first to see how it goes. But I think we have a good opportunity. The speed that I have shown in testing this year, and the consistency were the reasons why the team has chosen me. Obviously there will be high expectations, people will expect good results right away but I'm not under pressure over that as I feel ready for a big challenge. Stay calm in the first race, see how it goes, score some points and if we are not running into problems there is a good chance that we will be able to repeat what they've done before.

Q: Tests and practice sessions are one thing - racing for grid and podium positions is another. How long do you think it will be before you reach your optimum level of competitiveness?
I am confident that with the feeling that I have for the car - 25,000 kilometres are a long way of testing - will help me. I know that a race situation is different but then that is what I am doing for many years - racing. Sure the competition level is higher, but I don't see a problem there and if the team would have seen one they would not have chosen me.

Q: How does it feel to be suddenly in the spotlight? How are you coping with the media frenzy?
True, normally I don't have media attention nor interviews, so at least I have something to do during the next race weekends. And next year I go racing.