In a way, Heikki Kovalainen was only ever going to lose this year – as the golden boy of the Renault Driver Development programme and the clear favourite to win the series, the high expectation meant that if he won people would say he was supposed to, and if he lost they would assume it was all his fault. It was a lose/lose situation, and the pressure that can put on a driver is immense.
That he could absorb all of that pressure is one thing; that he did so and performed so well, taking the lead in the championship and staying there for so long and looking unfazed by it all is nothing short of remarkable. And he did it all with good grace and humour, his genuine decency shining through it all.
One example among many – when he finally lost the championship after a tough battle in Bahrain the very first thing Heikki said in the press conference immediately after the race was “before I talk about my race, I’d just like to congratulate Nico on winning the championship” – despite the heartache of getting so close but not winning, despite the unrelenting pressure on him to succeed and the effect it would have on his future, the first thing Heikki thought about was to congratulate his competitor.
Heikki is an uncomplicated soul: he genuinely love to race, and is prepared to do whatever it takes to get the opportunity to do it. The product of a modest upbringing, he knows how lucky he is to be in the position he’s in and works to the maximum to stay there – if it means an autograph signing session followed by an appearance in the paddock club and a seemingly unending string of interviews at the track followed by phone interviews in the middle of the night to the other side of the world, he’ll do it without question, smile and joke and give the quotes everyone wants, because ultimately it means he gets to sit in the car and drive.
And as good as he is at everything outside of the car, ultimately it’s Heikki’s abilities inside it that have put him in the position he enjoys now. You don’t have to look far for examples of his extraordinary talent – he won from seventeenth on the grid at the Nurburgring, he won with an ill-handling car in Monza despite race long pressure from Nico Rosberg, he drove flat out in both wet and dry conditions in Turkey to win – and even though he’s disappointed when he doesn’t win it’s not hard to see that he still appreciates how lucky he is to be there, even on the days when nothing goes right.
It’s easy to underestimate Heikki because of his good natured personality, but to do so is to do him a disservice – Heikki was the favourite at most races, and to win the title, simply because it’s more easy to imagine him winning than not, because winning is what he tends to do. It’s a good characteristic to have when you’re a racer.
One of the most useful weapons in his armoury is the ability to keep an even keel, to not get wound up about things not going his way – Heikki doesn’t ever seem to get upset, which means he doesn’t expend energy unnecessarily on things that he can’t change, unlike most drivers.
Even when he finally lost the championship he didn’t get upset, he didn’t lash out or make excuses or look for fault elsewhere: “It’s very disappointing of course – I was looking for the win, so second place doesn’t mean a lot to me, but I’ve learnt a lot and it’s been a competitive championship.
“I’ve got five victories, and they’ve all been very good moments, so I know how to win races and fight with the car and be on the edge all the time, so from that point of view there are some positive things. They were stronger than we were, and therefore they deserved to win - congratulations to Nico for a job well done.”
And it’s impossible to imagine Heikki changing next year in Formula One, despite the pressures going up even further. He will continue to be genuinely decent, interesting and funny person who wants to keep his life as simple as possible – he will continue to play the drums at home to relax, he will continue to bring his girlfriend to the races because she’s his best friend and he loves to just hang out with her, he will continue to eat astonishing amounts of food and thank the cook for making it, he will continue to carry out all of the public relations activities without complaint.
And then he will get into the car and continue to amaze onlookers with his ability to run at one hundred percent for as long as he has to, because it’s what he loves to do.