Amid the drama of this year’s title chase are a handful of feel-good stories on the grid. One that garners the most attention is the rise of Robert Kubica and BMW Sauber.
However, one more came to the fore in Hungary, as lady luck smiled on Heikki Kovalainen for the first time this year, as he won his first Formula One race.
To understand what makes this story “feel good,” look back to this past off-season after Fernando Alonso’s failed relationship with McLaren. It was clear that he would leave the Woking outfit at season’s end and, sure enough, not long after the 2007 season concluded, Alonso had left the team.
Where would he go? The obvious answer was to Renault (his former team).
However, it didn’t appear that there was room for him in the team. Heikki had assured himself of position in the team (or so I thought) with his performance in the second half of 2007 campaign, highlighted by a podium in Japan.
Plus, Nelson Piquet Jr. looked poised to be getting his chance as a Formula One pilot with Renault in 2008.
However, no other openings in any other team existed; Alonso would have to go to Renault if he wanted to race in 2008. Someone would have to give way to him then. The most logical choice seemed to be Piquet Jr.
He had been Renault’s tester and, while showing speed, would certainly not have been hurt by another year of apprenticeship. The man nicknamed “Kovy” looked assured of a spot as a Renault race driver.
He would probably have to play second fiddle to Alonso, but such would be expected, given that Alonso is a two-time champion and Heikki was still learning the ropes.
Still, he would be in a position to learn from one of the best drivers on the grid and, if he could hone his craft a little more, could look to move a better performing team in the future.
But then, Renault F1 boss Flavio Briatore made the surprising decision to dump Heikki as Alonso’s partner, instead placing the inexperienced Piquet Jr. in the car (likely done to appease Piquet Sr. and to assure Alonso wouldn’t be subject to a teammate challenge).
Kovy was left out in the cold after he outscored his more experienced teammate (Giancarlo Fisichella) and after he gave the team its only podium that year. His reward? A release, and at a time nearly all the other teams had their drivers locked in. He looked to be Renault’s “junk.”
However, there was indeed a ride open…and toward the front of the grid at that! It was in McLaren, who hadn’t yet filled Alonso’s old seat. The McLaren ride was, far and away, the best available (the only other team with an opening was the new Force India squad, and heading there would be undeserving, given Heikki’s 2007 season).
It seemed the most logical choice. The team would bring the other 2007 rookie, pair him with Hamilton, and look to have a solid future lineup in place.
Plus, for Heikki, it was a move up the grid; Renault were left to rebuild after a disappointing 2007 season, and the 2008 prospects didn’t look appealing (even with Alonso back in the team).
A move to McLaren would see him in a car that, if the cards would fall in his favor, could allow him to contend for a championship. It seemed as an “everybody wins” situation.
Alas though, something (or someone rather) was in the way of the move to McLaren: Kovy’s manager, Flavio Briatore (the same man who runs the Renault team and someone who is certainly not on Ron Dennis’ Christmas card list).
It seemed impossible that Flav would send a driver he manages to a team headed by a man whom he hates. From there, rumors persisted that either Nico Rosberg of Pedro de la Rosa would fill the vacancy at McLaren.
Kovy looked destined to go into the 2008 season without a ride. Such an occurrence would have left a sour taste in the mouths of all involved in the sport (drivers, mechanics, fans, journalists, etc.) for a very capable driver would have been caught out by the sport’s ruthless politics. Once again, Kovy appeared to be “junk.”
Fortunately, sanity prevailed and Heikki landed at McLaren for 2008. Still though, despite driving one of best cars on the grid, he still couldn’t find the speed to grab a win. More often than not, he would considerably struggle in comparison with his teammate Lewis Hamilton.
However, those struggles came down to a lack of luck rather than a lack of skill. In three straight races, he encountered problems beyond his control (a wheel failure and subsequent crash in Spain, a cut tire off of Kimi Raikkonen’s front wing in Turkey, and a mechanical problem that dropped him to the back of the grid in Monaco).
Despite his relatively poor performance being more a result of luck, many were wondering why McLaren hired him, and they would keep him.
With his win in Hungary, Heikki Kovalainen’s career has come full circle. He may have won due to some good fortune, but it is the first time this year he’s had lady luck on his side, and is very deserving of his win. Plus, he’s been reassured that he’ll have a spot on the grid next year, as McLaren have confirmed him for 2009.
From a struggling rookie, to future Grand Prix star, to a driver without a team, to a not-so-top driver in a top team, and not to a race winner, Heikki Kovalainen has gone from one man’s (Flavio Briatore) junk to another man’s (Ron Dennis) treasure.