A decent number of Formula One drivers will be leaving the German Grand Prix feeling rather disappointed. It was the sort of race in which everyone could have a done a little better, especially when you consider that Nelson Piquet was only a whisker away from his first Grand Prix victory. The Renault driver managed a podium despite starting 17th and falling backwards into the Force India’s on lap one. The Safety Car lottery meant that almost any driver in the field with a one stop strategy could have been leading the race in the final stages.
If someone other than Nelson Piquet had been in that situation, and had been more aggressive in defence (such as Fernando Alonso) an unexpected win would have been on the cards. Drivers who are renowned for risk taking (such as Fernando Alonso) will be ruing the missed opportunity that yesterday’s race provided.
However, one driver will be more disappointed than most after Hockenheim, and that man is Heikki Kovalainen.
On lap 52 of the German Grand Prix it became clear that McLaren now regard Kovalainen as their number two driver. Heikki’s sporting teamwork was an indication that Ron Dennis has thrown all of his championship eggs into a Lewis Hamilton basket.
Kovalainen is now thirty points adrift of the championship lead, and since this season has developed into one of the closest ever, his dreams of a serious title bid are over. He is only eight points ahead of Jarno Trulli in the standings so is unlikely to be challenging Kimi Raikkonen or Felipe Massa anytime soon.
Kovalainen’s position on the points table does little to reflect his immense talent, because the title chase would be very different if luck had played a different hand.
Heikki has actually been quicker than Hamilton on a number of occasions this year, and when that hasn’t been the case the Finn has been extremely close. Kovalainen has outqualified Lewis three times during the season, and has been within three tenths everywhere else (except for Canada and Germany) which is very impressive because he always carries more fuel in qualifying. The only time that Heikki has gone for a more aggressive strategy was at the British Grand Prix, and he easily put the McLaren on pole a full eight tenths ahead of his teammate.
Perhaps he should adopt such tactics more often.
If you look at the McLaren drivers fuel corrected qualifying times, there is barely anything between them. Lewis Hamilton is unquestionably one of the best drivers in the world but Heikki Kovalainen is much closer than he seems.
The pace is certainly there but Kovalainen has been unable to land the big results because he has very few trouble free weekends. Some of Heikki’s misfortune is his own doing, but the 26 year old is also short on luck.
The Safety Car ruined his drive in Melbourne, robbing him of second place and the chance to close up on Lewis. He received qualifying penalties at the Malaysian and French Grands Prix, his wheel failed whilst leading the Spanish GP, Raikkonen gave him a puncture in Turkey, and his car wouldn’t start in Monaco.
Kovalainen still managed third place in Malaysia but should have had similar results in those other problematic races, including a victory at Istanbul. Instead, Kovalainen’s rostrum appearance at Sepang has been his best finish all year.
Robert Kubica has shown that consistent podiums are enough to become a championship contender and that’s exactly what Heikki would have been expecting in 2008. He will be hugely disappointed with the direction his season has taken and that frustration will be even stronger now that his teammate has romped to four victories and the championship lead.
The problems for Kovalainen have clouded his performance in relation to Lewis Hamilton’s.
The British superstar has also had his fair share of setbacks this year and that has made it very difficult to evaluate both McLaren drivers in a straight fight. In fact, the first time they shared a weekend without any penalties or mechanical issues (and could therefore be fairly compared) was at Silverstone.
Kovalainen finished the race a lap down. Ouch.
Heikki destroyed his rear tyres during the early stages of the British Grand Prix and was simply unable to keep up with Lewis who was in another league altogether. Kovalainen probably would have won the race in dry conditions but was no match for Hamilton when the rain fell.
Yesterday’s German Grand Prix was the second time that both drivers have squared up against each other without any problems, and once again Kovalainen came off second best. He was so far behind his teammate that he was called up to assist Hamilton’s bid for victory.
Heikki produced a messy qualifying run at Hockenheim, and his big chance to make an impact on the race disappeared after the first lap when he was unable to pass Felipe Massa. Kovalainen had a great run on the Brazilian coming down into the tight hairpin but was way too cautious and let the opportunity slip.
It was in stark contrast to Hamilton’s supreme confidence through that same corner later in the race.
Heikki has been stunningly quick this year and was equal to Lewis early in the season, but he hasn’t been as strong over the last few races. The British and German Grands Prix were crucial for Kovalainen who needed some strong results to avoid being trapped as McLaren’s number two driver. Sadly it couldn’t have worked out much worse for Heikki who has now been assigned the role of Lewis Hamilton’s sidekick.
Even once this season is complete it will be a tag that he finds hard to shake.
With that in mind, the racing this weekend would have left Kovalainen with a sinking feeling.
His mood would not have been helped by the rumours that Nico Rosberg is being courted as his replacement for 2009. Apparently the Williams driver has a performance clause in his contract that will make him a free agent next year, and that might be something that interests McLaren. Nico was their first choice ahead of Heikki for the current season and Frank Williams confirmed that Ron Dennis tried to buy Rosberg with an “offer of majestic proportions”.
If the young German did come onto the driver market, McLaren would surely be interested in signing him up.
However, the current gossip about Rosberg doesn’t have much credibility. The story originated from Willi Weber who is only trying to engineer a vacancy at Williams for his young charge Nico Hulkenberg. Managers are well known for twisting the facts around to improve their chances of negotiating a Formula One contract.
Regardless of how they started, the rumours will certainly be on Kovalainen’s mind.
Nico Rosberg might be a very attractive option for McLaren, and particularly Mercedes, but the team are probably better off with Kovalainen anyway.
Heikki’s poor season has worked into McLaren’s favour because a definitive number-two driver gives them huge advantage over Ferrari. Massa and Raikkonen are currently stealing points off each other, which is great news for Lewis who now has the total resources of McLaren behind him. Heikki’s status within the team is strengthening Hamilton’s championship challenge.
It would be quite ironic if Ferrari lost the title by letting their drivers race, because doing the exact opposite helped Schumacher to five consecutive Scuderia championships.
Kovalainen is the fastest number two driver in the business, and that could be one of McLaren’s biggest assets as the season draws to a close. Heikki might end up being a huge factor in his team claiming the World Championship, although the winning trophy won’t have his name on it.