Where to for Heiki?

Wed, 12 December 2007, 08:48

The confirmation of Renault’s driver line-up yesterday has left Heiki Kovalainen in a bit of a quandary. He has proven in the second half of this season that he is a force to be reckoned with and an F1 talent that really could go far. At this point exactly that could be his downfall.

Let’s examine the facts: Flavio Briatore brings a talented young Finn – one managed by himself – into his team, handing him a race drive. The talented young Finn performs to expectations. Despite this, the next thing anyone knows he is not given a new contract by Flavio – the team boss opting to bring back his prodigal son and replace Heiki with a young lad named Nelson Piquet who hasn’t proven anything in F1. At least not in race conditions.

As a driver-manager, Flavio is not in the habit of bringing a driver into F1 and then not backing him to the hilt. Especially if he gives that driver a drive in his own team. So what happened here?

Alonso, that’s what. Fernando obviously had no desire to repeat 2007. He wanted number one status and a clear supporting driver – something he had by implication with Fisichella but was unlikely to get with Heiki. So Uncle Flav makes a plan. He needs his favourite driver back – not only for his speed and his potential to win the championship but also for his ability to help develop a championship-winning race car. One thinks that Renault’s 2007 performance potentially helped focus Flavio’s mind on this particular point. So Heiki it was not to be. Besides, they’d surely lose Piquet to a rival team anyway if they didn’t give him a race drive and, despite his lack of experience, he’s no half-wit and certainly won’t embarrass the team come race day.

Obviously then, Heiki’s off to McLaren.

Not so fast. Let’s not forget that the same issue exists there. McLaren have always been remarkably equitable toward their drivers and, despite numerous criticisms, it stood them in good stead. Until 2007. There is very little doubt that either of their drivers would have taken the 2007 championship if such a driver had clear no 1 status in the team. Their policy bit them badly. Does this mean they will change it and, for the first time in the history of the team, have an official (insofar as rules allow) no 1 driver? It’s not unlikely – and Heiki won’t really fit in with that scenario now would he?

Then there is the issue of Spanish money. McLaren have given assurances that all their Spanish sponsors are staying on with the team but numerous strong rumours have contradicted this. Giving Pedro de la Rosa a race drive would very quickly take care of that problem. Pedro has also been with the team for years now – he would know exactly what’s expected of him.

And that leaves Heiki where, exactly? The only remaining team with a realistic opening is Force India. Unless, of course, Toyota decide that Trulli has outstayed his welcome – which is unlikely. Either way, it’s not good for Heiki. While he would have the chance to show what he can do in a fast car at McLaren, neither Force India nor Toyota are likely to give him anything decent to drive – not in ’08 anyway. And past experience have taught us that, while Heiki looks good in a decent car that is nicely set up for him, he really struggles with a poor car. Think back to the start of the 2007 season. The Renault was a terrible car and, while neither of their drivers exactly set a blistering pace, Fisi looked composed and unperturbed on the track – with not a hint of off-track excursions. As the car improved, the roles reversed. Suddenly Heiki looked racy and Fisichella couldn’t keep up. Fisi is good at driving a poor car and bad at making the most of a good car. Heiki, so far, has proven the opposite. So what happens to Heiki’s F1 career if he ends up at Force India, next to Fisi? Make no mistake, he probably will beat Fisi. He won’t be flattered, however, and another good F1 driving talent may well go to waste. At Toyota? He’ll no doubt be faster than Glock and hopefully keep his chances of a decent drive in 2009 alive but a year at Toyota is unlikely to do his F1 career any good.

Even worse than being official number 2 at McLaren.

Edu de Jager

For all the columns by this author, click here

You may also like