McLaren ’50 in 50′: Heikki Kovalainen

Finnish driver Heikki Kovalainen was confirmed as a McLaren driver in December 2007. He joined the team after an impressive debut season driving for Renault. He finished seventh in the championship with 30 points, nine more than his more experienced team-mate Giancarlo Fisichella. He was with McLaren for two seasons before moving on to the team now known as Caterham.

Kovalainen’s racing career started in karts in 1991 when he was nine years old. In 1999 he was runner-up in the Finnish Karting Formula A series and went on to win championships in 2000. In 2001 he moved to single seaters and the UK, competing in British Formula Renault for Fortec Motorsport. He ended the year in fourth place with two wins, two poles, three fastest laps, and placed as the best rookie. He also travelled to Macau for his first F3 race were he finished eighth. In 2002 he came third in the British F3 championship with five wins, three poles and three fastest laps. World Series by Nissan was next up in 2003 and 2004, finishing second at his first attempt and winning it at his second. In 2004 he also took up a test driver role with the Renault F1 Team and won the Race of Champions. Further work with Renault as a test and reserve driver, and runner up in GP2 in 2005, led to Kovalainen being given his Formula One debut in 2007.

Team Principal Flavio Briatore classed Kovalainen’s debut race as “rubbish” after he finished outside the points. He picked up a couple of points from the next few races but it was a fourth place at Canada that turned his season around. Kovalainen ended the year with 11 points finishes, including seven in a row. He held off fellow Finn Kimi Raikkonen to finish second at the Japanese Grand Prix. As Renault welcomed back Fernando Alonso for 2008, Kovalainen secured his vacant seat at McLaren.

Points in the first three races was a positive start for Kovalainen. He out-qualified his team-mate in Malaysia, but they were both demoted for blocking in qualifying. He fought back to finish third, taking his second podium in Formula One. Throughout the year he often matched Lewis Hamilton for outright pace, and out-qualified him on 10 occasions. Kovalainen’s average qualifying position in 2008 was an impressive 3.8 (compared with Hamilton’s 3.6) while it dropped to 10.8 in 2009 after McLaren’s disappointing start to the year. The first pole position for Kovalainen was at a wet British Grand Prix, five tenths clear of Mark Webber. Kovalainen’s race engineer told him over team-radio “you’re on pole by half a mile – that’s half a second to everyone else”. His first win also came in 2008, making him McLaren’s 18th race winner. After both Hamilton and race leader Felipe Massa had problems, Kovalainen was in the right place to take advantage and win.

Kovalainen’s future was uncertain going into the winter and, at an event held at Mercedes Benz World he still claimed to not know if he would still be with McLaren in 2010. He entertained fans, driving his car around the track and signing autographs. It was subsequently revealed Jenson Button would be replacing him at McLaren for 2010. Kovalainen left McLaren with 18 points finishes, three podiums (including one win) and two fastest laps. He joined Caterham (then Team Lotus) but was left without a drive for 2013. Here’s hoping he can get back on the grid for 2014!

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BTCC’s own ‘Demolition Man’: the story behind Rob Collard

Rob Collard's demolition business R.Collard Ltd is thriving (photo by Malcom Griffiths)
Rob Collard’s demolition business R.Collard Ltd is thriving (photo by Malcom Griffiths)

Rob Collard has been present on the British Touring Car grid for over ten years, making his first appearance in 2000 driving a Nissan Primera. Nowadays he is part of eBay Motors’ assault on the championship, but away from the circuit he has proven himself to be just as successful in his day job.

When not doing battle on track at the wheel of his BMW 125i M-Sport, Rob is the head of his own successful demolition business, which has been built up over two decades to become one of the main players in the field with an annual turnover in excess of £10 million.

But how did a king of demolition become a race-winning driver in one of the most competitive racing series on British shores?

“I come from a farming background originally and used to work with my father,” he recalls. “Over the years, he expanded into waste disposal and also dabbled a bit in demolition, although it was something he didn’t enjoy.

“I saw something in it though and decided I wanted to do more of it, so elected to set up on my own. It has taken a long time to build up the company from what it was then, and there was a lot of saving that had to go in to getting my first digger.”

The business has come a long way since then. “Now we operate something like 50 trucks and 30 diggers,” he reveals. “The biggest of which is a 75 ton monster that has the ability to cut through girders and that we use to dismantle tower blocks. That machine alone costs around £400,00 and we have used it on things like the British American Tobacco factory that we dismantled in Southampton. There there were 8,000 tonnes of steel to remove!”

Rob also revealed how his business is similar to his racing career. “In the same way that the British Touring Car Championship is ultra competitive on-track, the demolition business is competitive off it and people will travel all over the country to try and get the big jobs. It is all about building a reputation that allows you to be at the front.”

Rob’s desire to launch his business saw his early racing career put to one side, with his focus firmly on ensuring that his new venture became a success.

“I’d been successful in hot rods but when I was setting up the business, I had to put my racing to one side for a few years to get everything established,” Rob explains. “Once things were up and running, I got back into things but wanted to move away from hot rods and decided to switch into circuit racing. At first, I did Formula Ford but I’d always wanted to race in the BTCC, so moved into saloon racing.

“When I got into the BTCC, I ran with my own team for four years and in 2003, we managed to win the Independents’ title with the Astra, which was a fantastic achievement. In 2005, I then got the chance to race with WSR and the rest is history.”

Rob Collard on the podium at Knockhill (photo by Jakob Ebrey)
Rob Collard on the podium at Knockhill (photo by Jakob Ebrey)

Seven wins and more than 30 podium finishes have followed across the seasons, with his success off-track being matched on it.

“When I look at what I have achieved so far, I am happy with the racing career I have had,” he says. “Although, if I was to do it all again, I wouldn’t have spent as long in hot rods as I did and would have made the move to circuit racing earlier on. I would have loved the chance to race in F3 and to have earned a factory touring car drive in the Super Touring days.”

Now in his mid-40s, Rob remains as quick as ever on-track, but is also looking over his shoulder as the next generation of the Collard family embark on their own racing careers.

His sons Ricky and Jordan are already showing their talent in karting, with Rob hopeful that the lessons learned in both business and in racing will allow him to aid the two youngsters in their own careers.

“I hope that what I have learned will be a massive help for the boys,” he says. “I was able to help Ricky to get involved with the late Martin Hines and the Zip Kart team through contacts I had made and for both him and Jordan, the knowledge I have gained will hopefully prove to be beneficial. For Ricky in particular, there is a big decision to make in the near future about his move into car racing and my contacts and experience could be key to getting that decision right.

Rob also acknowledges that, while he is still enjoying his racing, it will have to come to an end some day. “While I still enjoy my racing as much as ever and don’t plan to go anywhere, there will come a time when I do have to call it a day as I can’t go on forever. When that time comes, I have to make sure that the boys are in the best possible position in their own careers.”

You can catch eBay Motors driver Rob Collard in the penultimate round of the British Touring Car Championship at Silverstone (28/29 September) this weekend.