Life is hard for anybody at the top of F1, but as Martin Brundle said during the Grand Prix today, don't expect any favours from the team if you mess up, but instead expect criticism to be thrown at you at every turn. This may come back to haunt Heikki Kovalainen who, today, had a nightmare of a race in Shanghai. This has left him languishing seventh in the drivers championship behind the likes of Nick Heidfeld and Fernando Alonso.
There is no doubt that Heikki has had his fair share of misfortune this season but similarly there have been some severe driving errors. Its best to look at both sides and question whether he has been unlucky or simply poor...
The "Barichello effect":
Malaysia: 50/50 on whether this was luck or driving: steward call dropped him five places on the grid, but unlike Hamilton was able to soar up the ranks taking an excellent third.
Spain: Qualified poorly but was running well until right front tyre imploded causing a 180mph crash.
Turkey: At beginning of race was tagged by Raikkonen, damaging his rear wing, and hampering downforce thus was unable to contest for a podium.
Singapore: Lost out to safety car pit stop madness and was unable to improve.
Japan: Running well early on and with Hamilton out of the picture looked good to win but rare Mercedes engine blow ruined chances.
China: Car placed on "mis-matched" tyres thus struggled with pace. Brake problem caused puncture and subsequent retirement.
Australia: Qualified well and was heading for a good result after a dodgy pitstop strategy but accidentally pressed the pit speed limiter allowing Alonso through.
Monaco: Stalled on the line ruining any hopes of a strong result.
Canada: Nowhere all weekend (compared to Hamilton who was mighty), was passed by Massa and failed to score points when most front runners were out of the picture.
France: Steward call got him penalised for hampering another driver in qualifying, ruined race.
Belgium: Poor start left him stuck in the midfield and a optimistic manoeuvre on Webber got him a drive-through and ruined race.
Italy: Not really a driving error but couldn't overcome Vettel in a straight fight (although just as much a testament to Vettel's pace).
So it can be said that Kovalainen had a race threatening misfortune of some sort either through bad luck or bad driving in 11/17 races. All in all in those races he scored just 24 points, an average of seventh place per race, hardly satisfying for a driver in one of the top teams in F1.
If you compare this to Hamilton who has averaged around fourth place there is an obvious difference in position and a loss of three points per race.
There is certainly a lot to show that Kovalainen has not performed this year. Not just some driving errors but also some races where he's generally been off the pace...Bahrain for example, Germany and Europe saw Kovalainen not only far off Hamilton and the Ferrari's but struggling to beat the BMW Saubers and, later this season, Alonso.
It is noticeable however that Kovalainen does have raw speed...In Bahrain for example he did put in the fastest lap of the race. Maybe like Raikkonen this season he has been fast but overall inconsistent. Indeed there are often times in races when he disappears from the race altogether and has rarely been in the hunt for the outright win.
Although of course there is the possibility of "favouritism" in Mclaren. It would come as no surprise that Mclaren would support their No. 1 driver and protege Hamilton (seen in Germany this year). However this seems unlikely considering Mclaren's belief in equality between the drivers.
Furthermore if Kovalainen has been playing second fiddle to Hamilton this year, he hasn't showed it. He has always kept up the spotless media image and has never criticised the team even after the engine blow up in Fuji. On the surface at least we see a driver who is perfectly happy with his lot and not at all in a bad place.
So after looking at the stats and the general performance, it is still undecided on whether Heikki has been poor or has merely had a nightmare season. Overall I feel that Heikki has just been unlucky.
While there have been mistakes, Heikki has had his fair share of mechanical problems and bad luck in a car that has been generally been bullet-proof for Mclaren this year. Furthermore pace is there but has yet to be unlocked. Hopefully he will be given time (or the opportunity) to show this in the years to come.