Formula 1: Heikki Kovalainen at Lotus

Peter Lim InSports Images
Heikki Kovalainen exclusively in an interview
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What are you doing right now?
Kovalainen: I'm sitting in the L otus -Fabrik and followed the times of the first special stage at the Arctic Rally on the Internet. After the first special stage, my friend Kimi Raikkonen is only five seconds behind in second place. The boy is madness.

Would rally be something for you too?
Kovalainen: Yes, but only later in my life. Formula 1 is on the agenda for the next few years.

How often are you in the Lotus factory?
Kovalainen: That's now my third visit. I want to get to know everything: the engineers, the car, the technology. I've been there every day since Wednesday. For me it's a kind of inventory. I want to know where we are.

How did you come to Lotus in the first place?
Kovalainen: The first contact with technical manager Mike Gascoyne was already in the middle of the season. It stayed that way for the time being. I wanted to focus on my job at McLaren before looking for other cockpits. After the season, I spoke to a lot of teams. But the situation was really confusing. It was difficult to find out what was going on: who is new, who is being sold, who will stay in business? Then I became unsure and said to myself: Don't wait too long. So I freshened up my contact with Mike Gascoyne and had the Lotus project explained to me in more detail. What I was told sounded good: a stable budget, experienced people, potential for growth and the chance to build something with a new team from the start. Then everything happened very quickly. Mike put team principal Tony Fernandes in touch, and I signed the contract a week later.

Were you afraid of falling between stools like Nick Heidfeld?
Kovalainen: Not really. I had good contacts to many addresses. I just wanted to be sure I was picking the right one from the options. I wasn't interested in a test job. When the time came, I grabbed it quickly. Everything else was too unsafe. I didn't mean to wait too long.

Were there any chances to stay with McLaren?
Kovalainen: I already knew in August that McLaren plans for 2010 without me. They kept the door open for me until the end, but as a driver you can feel where the journey is going. I had the feeling that they were looking for another driver. McLaren is a great team, but somehow I needed a change of scenery after two years.

What memories do you associate with Lotus
Kovalainen: Den yellow Senna helmet in the black and yellow John Player car in Monte Carlo. And later my compatriot Mika Häkkinen drove for Lotus. Those are the two images that I have in my head. After I signed, I naturally looked up a bit of history and read books about the history of Lotus. It's really impressive which drivers have raced in this team.

What do you expect from your new racing team?
Kovalainen: I'm trying on the carpet to stay. I can't say anything before the first test drives because I'm still floating in a vacuum at the moment. After the test drives, we set our first goals. And that depends entirely on the quality of the car. I'm ready to start at the bottom, but I think we can be the best of the new teams. That should at least be our general goal. And we have to convince people in our first season that we are a serious team that has prospects.

What is your gut feeling?
Kovalainen: The only thing I can tell is what has happened so far. Lotus has achieved incredible things in a very short time. That we can take part in the last two weeks of testing in Jerez and Barcelona with the car is already a success. That shows me that the troops understand their job. We are a small but efficient team. And the cost reduction measures of Formula 1 will bring the big teams closer to our standard in the future.

If you go from McLaren to a new team, it has to be a culture shock.
Kovalainen: That's not that bad at all. Of course, Lotus has a lot fewer people than McLaren or Renault. At the moment there are 140. But that should increase to 250. We already have some on paper, but they cannot start for six months because they still have a blocking period from their old employer. But all of our employees come from Formula 1. The engineers and mechanics have worked for other teams until recently. There is no time to get used to it.

Has your life changed?
Kovalainen: Not at all. Lotus has as many marketing days as McLaren. Tony Fernandes wants to make this team known and get close to the people and sponsors.

How did you spend the test-free winter?
Kovalainen: The firstAt first, weeks after the season finale, I didn't do anything. I needed a bit of a break after my time at McLaren, a break to recharge the batteries. At the beginning of December I threw myself into training, either doing sports or going to the factory. In between I was briefly in Finland with my parents and did a little motocross on frozen lakes. The long time without test drives was good for me. I feel fitter than before and have really recharged my energy.

With Jarno Trulli you have another strong team-mate after Lewis Hamilton.
Kovalainen: I'm glad Jarno is here. He has experience, he knows Mike Gascoyne from his time together at Renault and Toyota, and he can advance the team. As an opponent, I'm not afraid of him. In Lewis, I've had one of the strongest team-mates anyone could ask for, and everyone knows I didn't do that badly against him, considering that everything at McLaren was focused on Lewis.

You must like the new qualification format?
Kovalainen: This is the best news of winter. Finally everyone qualifies with the same amount of fuel. Then finally the figuring out who was on the road with how much fuel and how much that means in lap time. Now two drivers from one team can be compared again.

What do you expect from races without refueling stops?
Kovalainen: We will definitely brake a little earlier on the first corner after the start. The cars will be a bit more difficult to drive, but everyone will adapt quickly to that. We also learned how to drive without traction control. Since we don't know the opponent's tactics now, all duels take place on the track. That would be a good thing if overtaking became easier at the same time. But I have my doubts. In any case, the races will be more difficult for us.

What do you think of Michael Schumacher's comeback?
Kovalainen: This is very good news for Formula 1. Last year there were a few gaps in the grandstands. I guess Michael will fill this up again. I'm allowed to race against him again in my career. Sure, he'll be in a different league than me this year, but maybe his car will have a technical problem and I'll have a duel on equal terms. Michael must have thought very carefully about his return. I bet he knows something we don't. His friend Ross Brawn must have told him everything about the new car, and that's when he saw that he could compete for the world title. Michael will definitely improve the show. Now all that's missing is a comebackby Mika Häkkinen and Jacques Villeneuve.


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