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Exclusive interview - Renault's Heikki Kovalainen 30 Jan 2007

Heikki Kovalainen (FIN) Renault R27 Formula One Testing, Day Four, Jerez, Spain, 19 January 2007. World © Bumstead/Sutton

Renault are well practised in the art of turning youngsters into champions. Fernando Alonso may have gone, but this season the new-look team believe former test driver Heikki Kovalainen has what it takes to help them continue their winning ways…

Q: The R27 certainly looks different to the R26. In terms of driving, is the new car a revolution or an evolution?
Heikki Kovalainen:
I think it is very much an evolution. The team had a good basis with the old car, so they have just looked to improve it in each area. And that’s how it feels when you drive it - a little bit more grip in the corners, and a bit more confidence under braking. The car is definitely a step forward.

Q: Your fastest time during the latest Jerez test with the R27 was better than anything you did in December with the old car on the new tyres. Does that mean the combination of R27 and Bridgestone Potenzas is already working?
I think it means we have made a good start - but no more than that. We still have to do a lot of miles, to understand the tyres and run through our test programme. It was nice to do a good time, but there is a lot of work to do before Melbourne.

Q: Are there any teething problems to report?
Yes, a few - but that’s normal with a brand new car. The most important thing was that we managed to complete two complete race distances in the first week. In spite of some small problems, that was the most impressive thing, to see we already have a good level of reliability straight out of the box.

Q: You have always been confident you could fill the void left in the team after Fernando Alonso’s departure. Have tests in December and the latest run in Jerez encouraged you further?
I don’t think the recent tests have changed anything at all. I am not expecting to get in the car and straight away do the same job as Fernando, and I don’t think the team is expecting that either. I am confident in my ability to do a good job, and Renault is too - that is why they chose me. I always put pressure on myself to succeed, and that hasn’t changed; now, I need to prove I can do it where it matters, in a race.

Q: The one-month test break over Christmas and New Year is meant to be a time for relaxing before the demands of the season. Have you spent some time at team principal Flavio Briatore’s house in Kenya?
No, we haven’t been to Kenya. I was at home in Finland, but for the first time I had a physical trainer with me as well. So I spent lots of time doing fitness, relaxing in my home country, but also preparing very hard for the new season. I am determined to be in perfect shape by the time I get to Australia.

Q: It’s just 46 days until you’re on the Melbourne grid. Are you beginning to feel the pressure?
No, I don’t think so. There is always pressure and I am focused on taking things step by step. If I do that, then I think I can do a good job.

Q: You were recently reported as saying Renault was originally interested in signing Kimi Raikkonen. Would that have meant another year as the Friday man for you?
I think what matters is that I am in the car. For sure, maybe it is a little bit of a risk for Renault to take a rookie driver, but I am there because they have confidence in me to do the job. I am looking forward to fighting with Kimi, and the other drivers, out on the track.

Q: Will you take over Alonso’s engineers and race crew?
I think that winning the championships in the past two years showed that the whole team is at the very top level, in every area. I am working with my engineer from the test team this year, because we already have a very good understanding and a strong relationship, and I am confident that the mechanics will do a great job too. The whole team is working at the top level, and that is what you need to win races.

Q: Your team mate Giancarlo Fisichella recently said that both of you will start the season with the same equipment. Will this continue? Could the fact that you are supposedly the team’s ‘future’ play to your advantage?
The policy has always been the same at Renault: to give both drivers equal opportunity to succeed. We will get the same car, the same parts and the same effort from the team. That is what you need - and I know the team will be giving maximum effort to both drivers, like they have done in every season.

Q: How has becoming a fully-fledged race driver changed your personal life? Last year you joked you were happy for some media interest over the weekend because it gave you something to do. Do you feel different now?
No, it doesn’t feel so different. For sure, life will be different at the race weekends because now I will have a job to do in the car, compared to last year when I didn’t drive at all during the weekend. But the media commitments and sponsor appearances are all part of the job. It doesn’t stress me out, and I don’t feel hunted down. There will be a lot of interest, and particularly in Finland, but that is a good thing - it shows people are following me, and interested in what I can achieve.