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!