Exclusive Kovalainen Q&A: Youve not seen the best of me yet 12 Jan 2010
Last season Heikki Kovalainen lost his way. Paired with Lewis Hamilton at McLaren for a second year, he struggled to get the most out of the MP4-24 and finished the championship 12th, 27 points adrift of his illustrious team mate. This season Kovalainen faces a different challenge as he competes for one of 2010s four new teams - Lotus. Adjusting to life at the start-up squad, the Finn is hopeful that, after a lot of hard work, the change of scene will see him finally fulfil his potential
Q: Heikki, you have switched from massive manufacturer team to small, private outfit this year. How are you finding the change?
Heikki Kovalainen: Obviously McLaren is a very big team, but as we saw last year, it doesn't necessarily mean they will always be quick. They can obviously turn it around quickly, but I see a lot of potential at Lotus and that's why I decided to come here. At the beginning it will be tough, we'll have a hard first few months, but once we get going, I think Ill have a better opportunity here than I would do with anyone else.
Q: You are so familiar with the inner workings of McLaren. How do you think the departure of Mercedes will change the team?
HK: I don't really know. It's obviously a big change for them but they're a big team and, to be honest, it's not really my business anymore!
Q: While McLarens image is quite reserved, Lotus seems a bit different, especially with the fun and relaxed Tony Fernandes at the helm as team principal. It must be quite a change. Are you already comfortable in the more laidback environment?
HK: I think they are very different teams, but I did have a good time with McLaren. We tried as hard as we could to get the best results, but it just didn't work out for me as it should have done. However, what I can do is bring what I learnt there. They are highly motivated, and they always push to the maximum to achieve the best result. I think I can bring that here and it will work well at Lotus as well.
Q: There must have been many times during 2009 when you doubted youd be able to stay in Formula One racing. How did your deal with Lotus come about? When did it all happen?
HK: The deal was eventually signed quite late, but the team first contacted me directly during the season, asking me what my situation was. At that point I didn't know anything really about Lotus. I was concentrating on finishing the season well. I had a number of options, but with rumours going around about some teams struggling for money, I was interested in talking to Mike (Gascoyne) and Tony, as I knew they had a stable budget for the next three years and a strong technical team joining later. In the end it was an easy decision to make and the best choice available for me.
Q: Have people underestimated your talents as a driver?
HK: I don't think people have seen the best of me yet, and I don't think I got the best out of McLaren. My aim at Lotus is to get the best out of the team and the car, and I don't see any reason why the results won't come. I don't think there are any areas I particularly need to improve. Some people think I'm a good qualifier, and not such a good racer, but that's only been while I was at McLaren. If you look at my time at Renault in 2007 the race performances were actually very strong, and I felt I got more out of the Renault than I did the McLaren. I don't really care what people think - I'm more determined than ever to do a good job for the team.
Q: Your team mate Jarno Trulli may have an advantage as hes worked with technical director Mike Gascoyne for many years. How will you muscle into that picture?
HK: I think Jarno and I will fit very well into that picture. I know the direction I want the team to go, and the team obviously wanted to get two experienced drivers on board so we do go in the right direction straight away. Together with Jarno I know we can do that.
Q: The driver announcement in Kuala Lumpur was very emotional and the location and guests were top notch
HK: I didn't really know what to expect when I got out there, but I was a little surprised by how well everything went. The team out there are experienced, but not really in terms of F1 so I wasn't sure how much guidance I'd need to give them. In fact I didn't have to give them any advice - everything was organised really well, and Tony had made sure all the main people knew what was going on and what they had to do. The Malaysian people were really excited about Lotus coming back as well and the whole atmosphere was very positive.
Q: You are at the factory right now. What is your impression of it? How does it compare to McLarens factory in Woking?
HK: It's obviously very different. In terms of area - Woking and Norfolk - are both very similar. They arent big like London, but there are good golf courses around. The facilities are obviously very different. McLaren is a big, hi-tech kind of space centre that nobody else has, and this is where we are building a new operation. When you go from a space station to a building site it's obviously different, but I know that once the team is fully set up here it will be as efficient as McLaren and we can go for good results.
Q: What is the schedule for the weeks ahead?
HK: We are preparing as well as we can at this time. One thing is that we could possibly join an earlier test. The car would probably be able to run but we wouldn't have spare parts and we wouldn't be able to test properly. If we had any problems, the test would be over. So at the third test we know well be able to push the car hard. I can push it to the limit, get a feel for the car and hopefully we can do a lot of mileage. I expect the car to be pretty reliable straight out of the box because Mike and the design team are all experienced people who know how to build a race car. Then the question mark will be how much performance we have. When the factory's all set up and running well be able to get decent upgrades relatively quickly, and that's when we'll see the real performance.
Q: Tony has thrown down the gauntlet to Virgins Richard Branson in what could be the funniest bet Formula One racing has ever seen (the loser will spend a day as an air stewardess on the others airline). How confident are you that the team will beat Virgin? How much personal pride is involved there do you think?
HK: I'm sure there's a lot of pride there. They've known each other a long time and they're both very successful, so I'm sure it's quite personal. I do know Tony will be kicking my ass to beat them, and I fully expect Mike to be doing the same. I think it's cool - we already have one definite target to aim for. But a lot will depend on how quick the car is. If it's very quick then we'll be fighting all sorts of people, but I know that if I see a Virgin car I'll have to get in front.
Q: When will we see you in the car for the first time?
HK: That will be at the third group test at Jerez. Jarno and I will be sharing the driving equally there, then at Barcelona. It's not a lot of testing but I've done a lot of F1 driving so Id be ready to go straight to the race if necessary.