Q and A with Heikki Kovalainen
Yesterday's 2007 Japanese Grand Prix saw Renault F1 Team driver Heikki Kovalainen take his first ever F1 podium finish. This came exactly 731 days (that's two years and a day) after his last podium in top-line motorsport, at the penultimate round of the 2005 GP2 series championship in Bahrain.
By finishing second, Heikki became only the second driver from a team other than McLaren or Ferrari to make it onto the second step of the podium this year. Indeed, he is just the fourth man from outside those two teams to score a podium of any kind in 2007 (the others being Heidfeld, Wurz and Webber).
This was Heikki's seventh consecutive points finish (his unbroken streak runs back to Silverstone in July), and his eleventh points-scoring finish of his debut F1 season. He has been classified in every race of 2007.
Heikki, describe your feelings after your first F1 podium…
First of all, I am very happy for the team. They deserve this result: they have been used to winning championships in the last two years, so it has been a tough season, but everybody has worked incredibly hard. I am really pleased for all the guys. As for myself, I came into the year hoping for more regular podiums, and I have been wanting this since Melbourne. I think this was a good way to do it: in difficult conditions, at a tricky race, fighting all the way to the end and beating Ferrari in a straight fight. I am very happy with my race.
How will you be celebrating?
With a debrief, and some time in the gym before Shanghai! We are racing again on Sunday, so we need to learn what we can from this weekend, and start again. It sounds pretty boring, I know, but I want to do my preparation properly, give myself the best chance next week – and make sure we can get the same advantage again, if we are faced with the same conditions.
The conditions on Sunday were appalling. What was your view?
I think it was one of the wettest races I have ever been in. I think it was correct to start behind the safety car, but also the right decision to start the race when we did. It was very wet, but they were raceable conditions.
Tell us about those last few laps against Kimi…
I just knew I had to everything I could to keep him behind. He was closing on me, I could see the gap closing on the pit-board, but then he was stuck at about 0.7s or 0.8s behind me, so I knew he wasn't just going to drive past me. The car was aquaplaning a lot, but I tried to find the driest line and just concentrate on making no mistakes.
But you couldn't see Kimi in your mirrors?
Yeah, they had completely misted up from about half distance!
Wasn't that hard, defending a position with no idea where your competitor was?
It meant I couldn't defend the position, I just had to drive my own race and push all the way. Looking back, perhaps it was better because it forced him to take the risks, rather than me defending the position too much and making a mistake. His move on the last lap was a complete surprise for me, but I knew I had braked late for turn 6, so for sure he had braked too late. And then he missed the apex, so I got him back on the exit of the corner, and kept my foot flat all he way to turn 10. After that, I felt pretty confident for the final part of the lap.
What did Kimi say to you when you got to the podium?
He just said well done, congratulated me on a good race, then we talked about his race, he was disappointed not to have scored more points.
This was the first time two Finns had been on the F1 podium, was it a special moment?
It was nice, yes. I never thought until afterwards, but it was a proud moment to be up there. Especially with Kimi, because he is one of the top guys, I have a lot of respect for him and on Sunday, I beat him.
From what we hear, that wasn't the only success for the Kovalainen family this weekend…
That's a pretty funny story actually! My father Seppo called me after the race, and he said that he had watched the Grand Prix with Kimi's father in his motorhome. They were both competing in a Finnish Legends race this weekend at a place called Jurva, and apparently my dad beat Kimi's in that race too – though I think they were something like P14 and P17! But it was a pretty cool story even so.
The podium was something of a late birthday present for your engineer Adam Carter too…
Yes, it was probably a day late though! He turned 29 on Saturday, and so it was great to get on the podium this weekend for him as well after all the hard work we have done this year, and even last year when we were testing together. Adam is the guy everybody hears on the radio on TV, but all my engineers have done a great job this year, along with the guys working on the car and everybody back at the factory too. Nobody has given up, and this is a bit of a reward for everybody.
Was it a vindication for you personally too?
The thing I am happiest about this season is that I managed to turn the situation around. At the start, there were a lot of mistakes and I think people were both surprised and a bit worried for me. But I kept my head down, worked with the team, took their advice on-board, and I stayed confident that eventually it would come good. And now I am back to a normal situation with my driving, the results are coming, and that is a big satisfaction. I hope it shows some of my strengths and proves that when I have the opportunity to score podiums each weekend, I am mentally and physically strong enough to do it.
What are your expectations for China next weekend?
I am not getting carried away, and obviously the result today owed something to the conditions. But I do believe that in dry conditions at Monza and Spa, you didn't see the full potential of the car. We looked good on Friday at Fuji too, and Shanghai is a similar kind of medium downforce track. We cannot fight for podiums in the dry, but we don't need wet weather to get strong results. I think we can race BMW at the last two races, and do that ahead of the midfield teams. Hopefully we can turn our potential into results in the next three weeks to finish the year strongly.