Q and A Heikki Kovalainen
Finnish racer Heikki Kovalainen has just completed his rookie season for the French based Renault Formula One team and to many people’s surprise, this inexperienced racer finished the season ahead of his veteran teammate Giancarlo Fisichella. Speaking at a promotional event for sponsor ING in Greece recently, Heikki conducted the following question and answer session.
Heikki, during your first year in F1 World Championship you achieved the 7th position, collecting a higher score than your teammate. Are you satisfied with these results?
Yes I am. My performances have improved with every race, and I think that now, people see me as a driver who belongs in Formula 1 and is capable of strong results. I have scored points in two thirds of the races, I have finished 16 out of 17 races and scored my first podium; plus people have seen that I am an aggressive driver who can really fight out on track, and who gives nothing away. Of course, we were hoping for more at the start of the year, but it turned out that the car was not able to deliver it. So we have had to adapt, and I think that once I found my feet and understood how to get maximum performance from myself and the car, we have done a very strong job.
Could you please elaborate, when mentioning that it was a difficult start to the year for you? What were the difficulties involved during the first 2007 F1 races?
It was a combination of factors. The car was unpredictable to drive and inconsistent on the limit, which was very different to the car I had driven during testing in 2006. As a result, I was over-driving to try and make up the performance deficit, and that was leading to more mistakes. Gradually, I adapted my driving and my approach, working harder with the team to improve the situation. And we made a step forward with the car too, making it easier to drive. As a result, the performances began to improve.
However, you scored your first point in the Malaysian Grand Prix, but the actual good result came in Canada during a chaotic race…
I never doubted myself, and never stopped believing I could do a good job. Yes, I scored my first point in Malaysia, and that was a nice moment. But looking back, I think Canada was a bit of a turning point, both for me and also for how people viewed me from the outside. It was a chaotic race, but I stayed calm and took advantage of the events around me. The team did a good job, I made no mistakes, and everything came together that afternoon. It made people outside the team stop doubting, I think.
Moreover, in the Grand Prix in Fuji, one of the most difficult and chaotic races, you scored your first ever career podium in 2nd place…
Again, it was a question of making no mistakes, and taking advantage of the situation. We know that in normal, dry conditions we cannot fight for the podium, so the wet weather brings a good opportunity for us. I ran a good strategy, and had a fantastic battle with Kimi at the end. That was what impressed people most, that I could withstand the pressure and not make any mistakes. It was a great feeling to be on the podium, and a good reward for the team too after all their hard work this year.
In the Chinese GP, Hamilton was almost penalized and for a while there was a possibility for you to get the 1st place in the podium. How did this make you feel?
I don’t think there was ever a real possibility of that happening, to be honest. Any racing driver wants to win by beating people out on the track, not in a meeting room.
What were the basic flaws in this year’s Renault R27?
I don’t think that you can answer a question like this in a simple way. It is a complicated question, with many answers. We started our work on the 2007 car late, because the team had to push all the way to the end of the year to win the 2006 title. That was the first thing. It took us some time to understand how to get the best out of the tires, number two. And thirdly, we had some aerodynamic problems at the front of the car, which took us some time to understand and solve. So it has not been a perfect year, but don’t forget as well that for many teams, this would have been a great season. The fact that we are disappointed with it shows how high our standards are.
Can you please describe the steps during a pit stop from the driver’s side?
To be honest, it is quite a simple process. We know what lap we will stop on, and then about halfway round the lap, we get called in by the race engineer. You have to get the braking at the pit-lane entry just right, to lose as little time as possible, and then stop exactly on the marks. That is the most important thing, to be accurate with the positioning of the car, otherwise the whole pit-crew has to move and adapt which costs time. After that, we put the car in neutral, wait for the wheels to be changed, and then select first gear when the lollipop man signals the right moment. After that, I am just waiting for the lollipop to go up, and as soon as it moves I let the clutch out and get back out on track. The most important thing throughout the process is to be very precise in everything you do.
Can you give us an indicative number of pit stop test sessions per year?
We do some practice in winter testing before the start of the year, then the team trains twice every race weekend on Saturday and Sunday morning. From the driver point of view, we practice stopping on the marks each time we come into the pits during practice.
Could you roughly describe G forces? How difficult is it to drive a curve like Nr. 8 in the Turkish circuit?
G-forces are quite simple, it’s the force acting on your body when you go through a corner at high speed, or brake or accelerate very hard. You feel a little bit of the sensation in a fast road car, but obviously it is magnified in Formula 1. A corner like turn 8 is not difficult, it’s fun – to feel the forces on your body, and to need to resist against them. I enjoy the physical challenge of corners like that, it is a chance for the drivers to make a difference with their preparation.
We heard that in November you will participate in the New York Marathon as well as Tasmania Challenge. Are you about to withdraw from F1 and practice another sport?
Not at all! It has always been a dream of mine to run the marathon, and this year is a good opportunity because ING is the sponsor in New York. For me, it is about setting myself a big challenge and pushing my physical limits.
Could you mention a few things about the fitness program you follow?
We have a very rigorous fitness program, and I work with my trainer every week away from the races to stay in the best possible shape. I do a lot of cardio training such as running, cycling or rowing to keep a high level of basic fitness. The better your cardiovascular fitness is, the more focused you can stay throughout the race, so it is really the basic building block of our training. In addition, we focus on training the key parts of the body for driving the car, like developing the upper body and working on core stability. I work very hard at my training, because if you are better prepared than the other guys, you will definitely have an advantage out on track.
We suppose it is time for vacation now, isn’t it? Are there any plans in particular?
Well, I have the marathon plus the Tasmania challenge, and testing will begin in a few weeks, so I won’t have too much time for a holiday! I still feel very fresh after my first season and I would be ready to go racing again next weekend. Around Christmas, I will go to Finland to be with my family and just get away from everything. I always feel very calm when I am in northern Finland, and it helps me get a good perspective on the challenges ahead.
Of course, you will save some time for Race of the Champions in Wembley, won’t you? In 2004 everybody was talking about your win over Michael Schumacher…
Yes, it was an event that really made an impression on people! I don’t think it meant very much in overall terms, but it was nice to race with Michael and to get the recognition that came from beating him. In fact, I was actually more pleased about beating Loeb in the round before the final: we were both in rally cars, his specialty, and I made it through which was very special. It was a fun day, and I am determined to put in another strong performance this year.
How do you drive outside the F1 tracks?
Driving on a circuit and driving on the road are two completely different things, and you just cannot compare them. The road environment is much more unpredictable and dangerous, and you need to be a lot more cautious and very alert. I don’t drive too quickly on the road to be honest, I prefer to stay safe.
What message would you give to Greek drivers in regard to safe driving?
The most important thing is to be cautious, not to take risks and to anticipate what is going to happen next on the road. Driving well on the road is not about speed, it is about understanding the situation around you and staying in control of the vehicle at all times. Interview courtesy of ING