After playing the team-game at Hockenheim and yielding to team-mate Lewis Hamilton, Heikki Kovalainen has begun to provide ammunition to his critics that he is too nice to be a world champion, and that he is fast falling into a support role at McLaren – a position he and his team rigorously refute.
The McLaren star has shown he has more than a match for team-mate Lewis Hamilton in qualifying this year. His sensational pole-position at Silverstone and his front-row grid at Turkey – both of which could have translated to victory had luck with the weather and a first-corner incident gone his way respectively – are a case in point.
But the Finn has been unable to extract the same degree of race-pace from his MP4-23, and has struggled with handling and balance issues over the course of a race stint. This has led to some disappointing results, which on paper look as though he was in a different league to Hamilton.
McLaren are adamant however that it is only a matter of time before the Finn climbs up on to top step of the podium and are working hard to unleash his full potential on race day.
“Firstly, let’s not forget that Heikki is a brilliant racing driver,” insists McLaren CEO Martin Whitmarsh. “His pass of Robert Kubica at Hockenheim reminded anybody who needed reminding that he has all the speed and skill to be battling at the front.”
“But there’s no magic in Formula 1 and we still need to work with Heikki to extract his full potential. At Hockenheim, he didn’t get the best out of himself or the package and we need to work on how we fine-tune the car’s set-up and how Heikki is involved in that process.”
“He was at MTC on Tuesday to carry out his pre-race programme and is working hard with his engineers to find a set-up that allows him to maintain his speed throughout a race stint without suffering from some of the rear-end nervousness he has encountered in recent races.”
Kovalainen’s searing one-lap pace, coupled with the advantage that McLaren-Mercedes are expected to have next week at Hungary, should play into his hands given that overtaking is so difficult at the twisty circuit.
“It’s a circuit where you’ve got to make the car work for you: it’s not a track where you can drag the laptime out of the car, it’s more about working patiently with the set-up to make your life easier on raceday,” says the Finn.
“If you end up fighting the car, the heat and the constantly twisting nature of the track mean you’ll be exhausted by the end of the weekend. Like Canada, it’s also a place that punishes you if you go offline. So driving well at the Hungaroring is all about neatness and patience.”