Sidepodcast // All for F1 and F1 for all

Stepping out from the shadows // Heikki Kovalainen makes a name for himself at McLaren

Published by Christine

Heikki

Last year, there was no question that Heikki Kovalainen was the number two driver in McLaren. He was new to the team, spent a long time finding his feet, and when he did, discovered they were two steps behind teammate Lewis Hamilton. Now, given his disappointing performance last year, part of me doesn't really blame McLaren for focusing their attention on their star driver. He won the championship for them, didn't he?

However, there are always questions about whether he could have done more if he'd been given the right fuel load, or the optimum strategy ahead of qualifying. Whilst Hamilton was often to be found on the top step of the podium, Heikki's one inherited victory trophy must look quite lonely on its shelf.

That is all in the past though, and it is to 2009 we now turn our attention.

Granted, the start of the season needs to be forgotten. Two races, zero laps completed. It was much too easy to write off Kovi, though, before the racing really gets going. To put it into perspective,  Massa had a supremely awful start to 2008 and came so close to winning the title. Vettel also couldn't complete a lap in the early stages of last year, but is now F1's rising talent.

Heikki's performance in China was a vast improvement on both the previous two races, and most of 2008 as well. Whilst he didn't pull out any spectacular overtaking moves, or make a case for being driver of the day, he did the job as required. In a clearly underperforming car, one that Hamilton (who admits he loves to drive in the rain) couldn't keep in a straight line, Heikki finished fifth. Hamilton may have been just one place behind him, but his scrappy race did his reputation no favours. Kovi had the edge and to me, this is impressive.

And so, I wonder if it is also impressive to McLaren. Perhaps 2009 will be the year when Heikki can step out from Hamilton's shadow and no longer be number two. When the car was on winning form, they needed to pick one driver over the other to secure the championship. Now they are racing in the midfield, that's not necessary.

I believe rumours of a rift between Hamilton and the team are highly overstated, but there can be no doubt that the closeness of the Ron Dennis days is gone, and Lewis has to tough it out and go it alone, keeping the garage onside by his own actions. Perhaps, things will be slightly tougher for him going forward.

The only question that still hangs over Heikki's head is what will happen when the car becomes more successful. They are clearly improving at a rate of knots, qualifying further and further up the field, and moving gradually into the points. Hamilton is a supremely talented driver, and won't release his favoured status easily. But perhaps going forward the team really will be equal. If more victories are in store for McLaren this year, perhaps another number one could emerge? Does Heikki stand a chance at taking that role on? Could he lead the team the way a top driver needs to? Share your thoughts on whether Kovi is moving up the F1 ladder, or if China was just a one-off race of good fortunes.