A fellow rookie driver shared the grid with Lewis Hamilton in 2007, one who was singled out for great things.
While Lewis Hamilton arrived into Formula 1 in 2007 with the weight of expectation due to his association with McLaren and GP2 championship win, it was Heikki Kovalainen who had attracted the attention of other paddock insiders.
The Finn had finished as runner-up in the 2005 GP2 campaign, and had the backing of Renault boss Flavio Briatore to come into the sport as the “Anti-Alonso” at the Enstone team in 2007 as the Spaniard left for McLaren.
Heikki Kovalainen anticipated as “the real deal”
Renowned PR officer Matt Bishop, former editor of F1 Racing magazine, revealed a conversation he’d had with former Ferrari senior mechanic Nigel Stepney as the pair shared a lift to the 2006 Brazilian Grand Prix.
“I changed the subject to the following season,” Bishop wrote in his column for Motorsport Magazine.
“Do you think McLaren have done the right thing by going for Lewis [Hamilton] next year?” I asked. “He’s a rookie and he’ll be up against Fernando, which isn’t going to be easy for him, is it?”
“No, that’s right,” Nigel replied, “it’s going to be tough for him. But the rookie I’m more interested in next year is [Heikki] Kovalainen. I reckon he’s the real deal.”
Kovalainen arrived into F1 and had an impressive debut season that included a podium finish at the wet Japanese Grand Prix. This earned him the attentions of McLaren, who placed him alongside Hamilton for 2008 as Kovalainen jumped into the seat left vacant by Alonso for a second consecutive season.
Despite Hamilton and Kovalainen heading into their second seasons in the sport, it was Hamilton who assumed control early on as he claimed his maiden title.
By contrast, Kovalainen only scored one win – a somewhat fortuitous one as he inherited the lead in Hungary with two laps to go as Felipe Massa’s Ferrari engine expired.
“He never won another grand prix, and he stood on only one more podium, but he was always wonderful to work with: friendly, funny, cooperative and very much a team player,” Bishop wrote.
Heikki Kovalainen was the “perfect number two”
While Kovalainen could have chosen to be bitter about the fact he had been paired with a generational talent who exposed his relative lack of speed in comparison, the Finn chose to be gracious in defeat.
“[Heikki] admired the towering ability of his megastar team-mate, and he never tried to hide that admiration for him, still less attempt to undermine him,” Bishop said.
“Phil Prew, who is now a senior F1 power unit engineer at Mercedes but was Hamilton’s race engineer while he and Kovalainen were McLaren team-mates, once made the following shrewd observation when he and I found ourselves sitting next to each other on a long flight.
‘Heikki is the perfect number-two. He’s proper quick in quali, which means that Lewis has to dig deep to match or beat him, which in turn means we know they’ve got the best out of the car on Saturdays.
“But then on Sundays, Lewis steps up a gear, which means that Heikki rarely gets in his way.”