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Heikki Kovalainen

Heikki Kovalainen (FIN) McLaren.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 1, Australian Grand Prix, Qualifying Day, Albert Park, Melbourne, Australia, Saturday, 28 March 2009 Heikki Kovalainen (FIN) McLaren MP4/24.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 1, Australian Grand Prix, Qualifying Day, Albert Park, Melbourne, Australia, Saturday, 28 March 2009 Heikki Kovalainen (FIN) McLaren MP4/24.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 10, Hungarian Grand Prix, Practice Day, Budapest, Hungary, Friday, 24 July 2009 Race winner Heikki Kovalainen (FIN) McLaren on the podium.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 11, Hungarian Grand Prix, Race, Budapest, Hungary, Sunday, 3 August 2008 Heikki Kovalainen (FIN) McLaren.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 10, Hungarian Grand Prix, Qualifying Day, Budapest, Hungary, Saturday, 25 July 2009

Following in the footsteps of Finnish forebears Mika Hakkinen and Kimi Raikkonen - and with an ice-racing father to boot - Heikki Kovalainen seems to have been born to be a racer. And as soon as he was allowed a licence - aged 10 - he became a regular at national and international karting events.

After steadily making a name for himself, the young Finn eventually hit the big time in 2000, winning the prestigious Elf Masters kart race at Bercy. Named Finland’s ‘Driver of the Year’ that same season, Kovalainen then left his karting days behind him and switched to single-seaters and the 2001 British Formula Renault series.

The move proved to be an out-and-out success for the 20 year-old. Two race wins in his debut season saw him take ‘Rookie of the Year’ honours. Too ambitious to rest on his laurels for long, Kovalainen was promptly signed to Renault’s driver development programme and made the move to British Formula Three to race in a Renault-powered car. The switch paid off.

Though Kovalainen’s car was by no means the fastest, he finished third in the championship and, with five wins to his name, once again claimed the moniker ‘Rookie of the Year’. In F3’s international events too, he was no slouch. Putting in mature performances in both the Marlboro Masters at Zandvoort and the Macau Grand Prix, he finished fourth and second respectively.

Impatient as ever, Kovalainen moved on again in 2003. But after flitting about so much, this time he made a conscious decision to settle down and win a championship, something which had so far eluded him in single-seater racing. Opting for the esteemed World Series by Nissan, it took just two seasons for the gifted Finn to realise his dream.

Second in 2003, the following year he claimed the title, beating amongst others Tiago Monteiro and Narain Karthikeyan. The Nissan crown opened several doors, not least Kovalainen’s first drive in a Formula One car. Invited to test eight times for Renault, the Finn impressed with his natural speed and strong technical feedback. A stunning victory over Michael Schumacher in 2004’s Race of Champions event was another cause for celebration.

But a permanent foothold in Formula One racing remained elusive and in 2005, Kovalainen signed to drive in GP2, the new feeder series for Grand Prix aspirants. Against stiff competition, he made a strong start to the season, winning several of the opening rounds. Although he eventually missed out on the title, finishing runner-up to Nico Rosberg, the season had ably demonstrated his abilities.

As a result, after five years with Renault’s development programme and with the influential backing of manager/team boss Flavio Briatore, Kovalainen was rewarded with a full-time testing role with the French team for 2006. As official reserve driver, he spent the next year covering 18,000 kilometres in the championship-winning R26, honing not only the car, but also his driving and development skills.

The team were suitably impressed - so much so that for 2007 he was asked to take over one of the most sought-after seats in F1 racing - that vacated by McLaren-bound world champion Fernando Alonso. And after a slightly faltering start, Kovalainen justified Renault's faith by eclipsing veteran team mate Giancarlo Fisichella and giving the defending champions their only podium finish of a difficult '07 season.

History repeated itself in 2008, Kovalainen again stepping into a seat vacated by Alonso, this time at McLaren. With world champion-elect Lewis Hamilton as team mate, he inevitably found himself somewhat overshadowed, but it didn’t stop him taking his first fastest lap, his first pole position and his first Grand Prix win, en route to seventh in the championship on 53 points.

Kovalainen needed to get closer to Hamilton in 2009. He didn't. Despite some excellent drives, he scored less than half his team mate's points tally, prompting McLaren to drop him in favour of new world champion Jenson Button for 2010, and leaving the Finn to try his luck with the all-new Team Lotus (latterly Caterham). It may on the surface have been a dramatic demotion, but over the following seasons it bolstered Kovalainen’s reputation considerably, as for the first time he was able to prove that he could help lead and develop a new squad.