Exclusive Q&A with Caterhams Heikki Kovalainen 05 Jul 2012
Making the move from McLaren to a small start-up was a brave course of action for Caterhams Heikki Kovalainen to take three seasons ago. But, so far, Kovalainen couldn't be happier with his plucky decision. Comfortable and proud of the steady progress made by his team so far, the Finn is hopeful that all the hard work is gradually starting to pay off...
Q: Heikki, the team is now in its third year. Drivers are always inclined to think development is proceeding too slowly, but what do you think?
Heikki Kovalainen: No, I dont think so. We have achieved a huge amount in what is still a very short amount of time - and there are no shortcuts to success. The main thing is that theres nothing we can do about the past, so its better not to worry about what has gone before. The fact is we are now making good progress and we proved that in Valencia, so the future is the only thing we need to focus on. Were working on more updates, some of which well take a look at in Silverstone, and well keep making progress. So were all looking forwards, not backwards.
Q: What would you identify as the teams weak spots?
HK: There are a few things we know we need to keep improving. One of the main ones is the facilities and weve already addressed that. The shareholders have invested again and have given the team a new and much bigger home in Leafield and thats a significant boost for the team. We have very good people and now they will have a place to work that has the size and the scope to fit the tools they need to get the job done, not just for now but for a long time to come. Technically the main area we need to address is aero - thats a fact for every team in F1. And for us to compete we need to keep bringing in people like John Iley, who can bring the sort of knowledge and experience we need to compete with the teams ahead of us. Johns already boosted the aero department and he and Marianne (Hinson, head of aerodynamics) are already working well, increasing the wind tunnel programme and the CFD capabilities so we are going in the right direction. The rest of the design office team is already doing a job thats probably as good as quite a few teams ahead. The cars reliable, easy to set up and we have a very good engine, gearbox and KERS package. So as long we keep notching up the level of work we do in aero, well keep improving.
Q: Consistency doesnt seem to be an issue for CT01. Is that its biggest strength?
HK: I dont think its really the biggest strength but its certainly an area we dont need to worry about. We had a couple of problems early in the season but they were small issues we dealt with quickly. But the truth is reliability doesnt give you performance. We are where we should be on that front - F1 today demands that you have a car that can finish races and we have that.
Q: How is it being the frontrunner of the backmarkers? Is it in line with your ambitions?
HK: Its not my ambition to be known for that sort of thing and I obviously want to be testing myself against the top drivers and the fastest cars, as does everyone in the team. But its important for me that Ive regrouped since my first three years in F1 and Im now happy with where I am as a driver. I think Im performing very well and hopefully I can get into a position with this team where I can fight with the top guys out there, rather than just my team mate! Hopefully it will happen with this team. Hopefully we can keep going forwards and at some point this season we can start discussions about what were going to do in the future. We havent done that yet and I havent talked to any other teams yet. But for now Im just focusing on doing what I am doing right now, qualifying and racing well and developing the level of performance to where it has to be. Then the future will sort itself out.
Q: Would you still say that small is beautiful?
HK: Haha! It can be when its done well. I think were a really good small team, certainly miles ahead of the other two small teams and perhaps functioning better than a couple of the smaller, more established teams. There are a few cars just ahead of us who clearly have more performance available, but perhaps theyre not able to get the best out of their package. I think we regularly are doing that. Thats a good thing for our team and we need to make sure we keep getting that right. Once we get a car that is quick enough to fight right in the pack, well need to make sure we dont lose that ability to get everything out of what weve got. So yes, small can be beautiful, but for us to be serious about being at the front of the grid well have to be bigger, for sure. (laughs)
Q: Caterham is in P10 in the constructors championship at the moment. Toro Rosso is only six points away in P9 and youve come quite close to clinching the teams first points at least at two races. Is your goal to help the team to take that place in the standings?
HK: I think thats probably a tough ask. We shouldnt be judged by the number of points we score this season, but by how far weve come in terms of performance. If were fighting with Toro Rosso then weve done well, but were not quite there yet, and theres another gap to the pack ahead of them. We need to make sure we can keep qualifying ahead of Toro Rosso at all sorts of tracks, like we did at Valencia. And if we can race them then we should be judged on that, not how many points we have scored this year.
Q: In Bahrain and in Valencia you made it into Q2. How crucial is it to qualify further towards the front if you are to avoid the danger zone of the last rows and get better results?
HK: I dont think it gives me a big benefit to be qualifying that much higher up. Its obviously a great boost for the team, and the fact we can push cars out in Q1 that were ahead of us earlier in the season is good mentally for everyone. But sometimes if youre at the back of the queue its easier to avoid the problems than when youre right in the mix! But its part of racing - going into the first corner, hanging onto the wheel and hoping you survive the first few corners. Really, its good for motivation but it probably doesnt really have any impact on the final result. With the tyres the way they are now weve been using qualifying strategy as well as we can, but really the race strategy is the priority. That will change when we join the group in front, and once were in a serious fight with a few more of the cars around then qualifying will become more crucial. Having said that, as a driver, qualifying as high as possible is still good. Leaving that quick lap until the last second in Q1, getting everything out of the car over one lap, hoping you dont see yellow flags or anything else that gets in the way - is a real buzz. The circuit evolves the longer you leave it and its fun to give it everything youve got. Its worked out for us a couple of times this season and when you get back and see what it means to everyone to grab that slot in Q2, its good, a good feeling.
Q: How do you get along with new team mate Vitaly Petrov? Your results are pretty even
HK: We get on well. Hes been a good addition to the team and its been fun racing him this year. Hes good, theres no doubt about that. Hes quick and hes learning how to get the most from the car and the team, so its good. We work well together with our engineers and there are no secrets. Nothings hidden. Were all working to achieve the same goal, to push the whole team forward.
Q: Caterham has two home races - one in Malaysia and this weekends British event. Will there be a massive updates at Silverstone?
HK: I wouldnt say massive, but we definitely have more to come, not just for Silverstone but also for the whole season. Thats one thing that has changed. We are bringing new parts to every race now. In 2010 we stopped developing the car at Silverstone whilst now its another step, a natural part of the season. The important point is that we not only find performance gains, but make them relative to the teams ahead. Everyone updates their cars and we need to work even harder than the guys ahead to keep bridging that gap. Thats a big ask, but little by little were getting there and I hope Silverstone is another step forwards for us.
Q: What is the aim for the weekend?
HK: Really its the same as it is all season. Qualify well, race well and keep pushing. Keep working as hard as we can to get into that fight ahead.
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