Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Inheriting the King’s Seat – Heikki Kovalainen

The King is gone. Since this a Formula One blog, the first thing that comes to your mind is probably the fact that Schumacher has retired. This is not referring to Schumacher, as he is more than a king; he is an entity to say the least.

Let’s define ‘king’ first. One who is very powerful indeed, considered as the leader of a given group of people. Although Schumacher is one of the greatest – if not the greatest – F-1 drivers of all time, he was not the ultimate leader of the 2006 championship. That was Alonso. He is currently the King of F-1. He is the man to beat.

In one aspect, the world of F-1 is more complex than any kingdom we have heard of, in reality or fiction. No king would ever give away all his knights to somebody else. Alonso has left a seat at the mighty Renault open for Heikki Kovalainen to fill. No war was necessary, he simply left.

Is Kovalainen worthy of taking the King’s seat? He certainly is a great driver. If we consider the drivers who have driven an F-1 car but have not yet won a race, he is up there with the top drivers of the new generation: Lewis Hamilton, Nelson Piquet Jr., Sebastian Vettel, Robert Kubica, and Nico Rosberg.

Some may say he is a more complete driver than Nico Rosberg. I am one of them. When Kovalainen lost the 2005 GP2 championship to Rosberg, you could not tell by the final results how many great races he had. If you only read the final standings, you will see no mention of the epic race at the Nürburgring, in which he won after starting 17th on the grid. Or about his ability to be constantly fast while conserving tyres, which allowed his team to define many race winning tactics that no one else would dare to risk – Something similar to what Ross Brawn used to design for Schumacher.

I also have to point out that Nico Rosberg only won the title in the final four races. And the last two were wins, in Bahrain. They were a clear example of the great track engineers ART Grand Prix (Rosberg’s team) had for that season. I am not saying that Nico Rosberg is not a great driver – he is on my list two paragraphs above. But ART found something in their setup that no one else found. It was clear that both their drivers – Rosberg and Alexandre Prémat - had that extra edge on speed, especially on the second part of the season. That made Rosberg’s job a little easier.

Kovalainen is much more than the driver who was the 2005 GP2 runner-up. As in many professions today, a racing driver’s résumé must contain much more than the ability to perform on the track. The driver must know how to work in – and for – a team. He must communicate well with the people around him, making sure he gets what is needed to be faster. He must adapt his driving style to the circumstances. He must admit his own mistakes. This is the greatest thing about the Renault Driver Development programme, of which Kovalainen is part of since 2002. It teaches young kids what it takes to be a racing driver outside the car. Kovalainen is its best alumnus to date.

As a Renault F-1 test driver in 2006, Kovalainen has not only been constantly fast, but also confirmed his potential to fit within the team. This is the main reason why all title hopes for Renault in 2007 rely on him. This is not an exaggeration. If Fisichella were the main driver for 2007, even Flavio Briattore would bet all his money on Ferrari. They would not even need Raikkonen, Massa alone could handle the task as he has already beaten him in 2006. Renault believes in Kovalainen. So do I.

Heikki Kovalainen is not the King of F-1 yet, but chances are he will be one day.

--Andre N.

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