Is Heikki Kovalainen McLaren's Mistake or a Sleeping Megastar?

steven stonesAnalyst IAugust 1, 2008

In a press conference on Thursday, Vodafone McLaren Mercedes announced that they would be retaining the services of their Finnish second driver, Heikki Kovalainen.

While this is definitely good news for the Finn, is it such good news for the McLaren team overall?

In a contrast with the signing of Heinz Harald Frentzen at Williams in 1997, Heikki Kovalainen has filled the cockpit of the McLaren No. 2 car.

There are two theories circling about the role of Heikki Kovalainen. Whichever of the theories is correct, or at least closer to the truth, the 26-year-old is not really delivering.

Heikki had a mediocre start to his Formula One career, racing messily in his debut for Renault, to the chagrin of Flavio Briatore, who branded the performance "rubbish."

It seemed like a good idea for McLaren and Renault to swap drivers when Alonso expressed wishes to return to Renault. Kovalainen joined the Woking squad. With the mild-mannered Finn on board, it was clear there would be no ructions in the team this season.

So what was Kovalainen hired for? Was he to be clear No. 2 to Lewis Hamilton, destined to wage war with lesser equipment? Perhaps.

Or is it equality all around, as McLaren often claim, that their drivers have an equal chance of winning and both have equal support?

Whatever the role of Heikki, he is failing in all of his duties.

If, for instance, he was to be the No. 2 supporting driver in the McLaren set up, then he should serve as Lewis Hamilton's rear gunner, sticking on the tail of his team-mate and fending off and taking points off the Ferrari duo.

The position of McLaren in the Constructors Championship shows clearly he isn't doing this. Lewis leads the driver's title race, while Kovalainen is a rather lacklustre sixth.

And what if Heikki does have the fabled equal McLaren equipment and fortune? In this instance, the picture is even grimmer for Kovalainen. If his car is the equal of Hamilton's, then Kovalainen should be there or thereabouts on race weekends when it really matters. To be faster in practice and testing doesn't mean anything in the grand scheme.

So more than halfway through the 2008 season, Kovalainen has managed a single Pole Position which was translated into a soggy performance in more ways than one. He spent most of the race being overtaken by the rivals he should have been beating.

Of course, misfortune has played its part, with retirements due to component failures and bad times in qualifying, not to mention acclimatisation to the McLaren set up. However, these setbacks have been fog which have covered up his overall mediocrity.

As a McLaren fan, it is easy to make excuses for the young Finn. But in objective mood, it is clear that there is basis for branding the retaining of Heikki a little bit of a blunder.

However, to what extent is it a forced decision? The contract for Kovalainen was for two years, but we have seen teams not honour these before. But who else could McLaren take?

Gary Paffet, longtime test driver and Brit DTM driver, has seemed to wane a little in recent months and does not seem a likely or safe candidate. Pedro De La Rosa has been tried before, his race craft is simply too rusty these days.

Among the GP2 brigade, a vast number of them are either on the Renault Young Driver Development Program or are allied to Red Bull. So perhaps to stick with Kovalainen is all McLaren can do to prevent them being forced to put Takuma Sato in the car (joke, he hasn't actually been linked).

But as we said in the beginning, the echoes of a top team not having a top driver as Williams didn't in 1997 and 1998 seem to be coming around again at the McLaren team.

For 2009, Heikki must truly raise his game. There can be no more excuses.