Heikki Kovalainen moved from McLaren to Lotus during the winter, and has been enjoying something of a rebirth at one of Formula One's newest teams. While race wins or even points finishes remain a distant hope, the Gascoyne-led outfit is leading the battle of the three new teams. On the Thursday of the British Grand Prix weekend, before the track action had begun, Manipe F1 sat down to talk to the Finn about his season so far.
Q: Were you disappointed to be knocked out in Valencia after having such a good race up until the crash with Mark?
Heikki Kovalainen: Yeah of course. I had a good start to the race and I was on my own. The guys ahead of me pulled ahead a bit, but it was possible to pull away from the guys behind me quite easily, so it was going relatively well. Then to have that kind of incident it was unfortunate but it is racing and it can happen sometimes. The most important thing is that Mark didn't hurt himself.
Q: Did you brake any bit earlier going into the corner, because Mark said you braked 80 metres earlier than he was expecting?
HK: I braked four metres earlier than my previous lap when I was on the normal line. Obviously I had to brake a little bit earlier because I was on the dirty side. Maybe he can brake 80 metres earlier but that sounds like quite a lot. Maybe 40, or 30 but 80 sounds quite a lot.
Q: Did you speak to him after the race?
HK: Yeah, I saw him in the medical centre. I was just saying 'What happened?' because for me it felt like he just ran into me. I wasn't even being very aggressive, I defended of course but I didn't go hardcore. I told him 'Pass me under the braking'. Whichever side he wanted to go, I didn't know. He didn't know exactly where I was going to go and got too late and then outbraked, he was surprised by that. It's a racing incident. I don't think he needed to come that close. If he's able to brake 80 metres later, for sure he could have gone to the other side. It happens so fast it's easy to say afterwards.
Q: Can you challenge any of the existing teams here this weekend?
HK: It depends on what kind of upgrades they have here. We expect to have three tenths to five tenths here. It should be three tenths just from aero. We have a new floor, new bodywork and some other turning vanes on the side of the car. But also we've taken a big chunk of weight out of the car so that should help us to set-up the car better but it's difficult to quantify how much we're actually gaining in laptime. It should be better to drive the car as well. We'll get another couple of tenths there and that'll be about half a second so it depends what kind of pace the other teams can do. This is a circuit where you need the aero performance so for sure it's not going to be easy. There are a lot of corners where you need the grip, so it might be difficult.
Q: If you've got no aero updates for the rest of the season, surely it's going to be difficult to stay ahead of Virgin if they keep on developing?
HK: So far it's not been very impressive the way they've developed their car. They've had a few upgrades but it seems like in Canada what they had didn't really work. If it carries on like that I wouldn't be worried, but if they carry on developing the car aggressively towards the end of the season they probably will be catching us. We will still make our car lighter and also through the set-up work we can find time but not in as big chunks as now, a little bit, but at the moment we have a reasonable cushion so they need to improve quite a lot to actually catch us. We have to wait and see how it works out, but I think we should have a possibility to stay ahead of them, we've developed better so far than they have.
Q: The main aim is next year and to be a midfield runner, so it's not going to be a disaster if you do fall behind Virgin at the end of the season...
HK: No, it's not a disaster, but for sure we don't want that. It would be good for the team to finish tenth in the championship. I think the team gets some money from it so this would be crucial. We are still a small team so we need all sorts of prizes if we can. For sure we are doing absolutely everything, even if we are not developing the car aggressively any more, we are doing everything to achieve the best possible results. There are some challenging races where there are points available for the small teams and the cars at the back, so we've really got to be on the money to take them then.
Q: You joined Lotus from McLaren, probably the biggest team in Formula One. Was that a big change for you?
HK: Of course the McLaren team is huge. Compared to Lotus, McLaren is a big team and they can react to things very quickly and they can improve things very fast. We can't do things as fast as McLaren, we can't improve as much. Actually running the cars through the race weekends, going through the sessions and preparing the cars and how the team is functioning, is very similar. All the mechanics and engineers are established people, they are not people that need to be told, they know how things are run. So that has not been different at all. It's still as professional as McLaren. We have procedures in place and meetings and we go racing and running the cars the same way as they do, so that's not different. They have more support from the factory, they have people there looking at things. They can react to things quicker and they can do bigger quantities in much shorter time. that's the biggest difference. We're still growing, we're never going to be as big as McLaren but I think given the bigger teams need to be downsizing in the future, there's going to be limits by the FIA more and more all the time, people want to spend less money. We're still growing to that limit, so hopefully the bigger teams will have to downgrade so the gap hopefully will get smaller in the future.
Q: Will having a team of comparable size make a difference?
HK: I think so, it will give us a better chance. Even if we have less people in the team, so far this year I've been impressed how they can develop the car, how they can get everything out of the people. I think that's probably better than I was expecting, so this has given me a good positive feeling. If we still get more people and more quantity, a bigger size in the team, I think we can get even more out of it. I see a lot of potential in ths operation. Tony Fernandes [team principal] and Mike Gascoyne [chief technical officer] at the very top running it, it seems like a good place for people to work. It's a good environment, I think we get more out of engineers and mechanics and designers than perhaps some other teams.
Q: You seem to be very happy here - every time a camera turns on you, you're always smiling. Are you a lot happier here than you were at McLaren?
HK: No I wouldn't say that. Honestly I enjoyed working at McLaren as well. Of course the end of last year was difficult, was tough, the results were not coming. We were working very, very hard to try to improve the results and to get things going but it just didn't work out. We probably worked too much, maybe I was getting tired, the energy wasn't there. It just wasn't working. This year the balance feels much better, I feel fully charged coming to the race weekend. The head is 100% clear, I have no doubts, I don't have to think about anything else. I'm very comfortable in the position of the team and I'm comfortable arriving at the race weekend. It might seem that I'm happier outside but I've got more energy. I'm in a better balance.
Q: Is that because there's less pressure. Clearly there isn't any pressure on Lotus to win a race...
HK: It wasn't the pressure last year. I think it was the amount that we did last year was just too much. I spent a lot of time with engineers, with designers, in the simulator, just working, working, working, just to try and get things going. I think it was just taking a lot of energy out of me, and then arriving at a race weekend tired, not mentally and totally prepared, it was not ideal. I could not get everything out of the team and out of the car. If I don't perform, if I don't feel I get everything out of the car I'll put a lot of pressure on myself to achieve that. I don't care what people around me say, and certainly at McLaren they were very supportive. Nobody was forcing me to do things and add extra pressure. Even here it's the same. I know the team wants to improve quickly and get good results. I'm quite comfortable that, when things go right, I can bring results for the team and I don't worry about that. Speed has never been a problem in Formula One, I've always been quick enough so that's the most important thing and the rest needs to be put in place in the correct place and that's what we're working on now. There is still the pressure now to beat the new teams and try to beat my team-mate and I always have some intermediate goals to try and push myself.
Q: Are the reliability problems frustrating?
HK: Yeah, of course it's frustrating. It's frustrating for the team, especially hydraulics, they've let us down too many times. The last couple of races have been better so fingers crossed that we can get both cars to the finish here. The team has worked flat out to try to cure the problems and to eliminate all the possible future problems but there is always something new that has come up and spoiled either Friday or Saturday or Sunday. We've had problems with the cars, probably Jarno more, through the race weekends and through the race days but problems also on Fridays. That's of course frustrating and that's something that we need to get on top, somehow try to improve the reliability. Quite a lot is not down to the team, the suppliers have let us down and then next year we're going to improve that side for sure.
Q: Are you going to change a few suppliers to improve reliability for next year?
HK: I don't know exactly what the plan is yet. I think we haven't made a decision about certain things. I think we haven't made a decision about engine, or hydraulics or gearbox or these kinds of things.
Q: So it is possible that you will change engine or hydraulics or gearbox next year?
HK: Yeah I think it's possible, but you've got to ask Mike [Gascoyne] that question, he knows better. I'm not fully up to date about that. But to be honest the engine hasn't been bad this year. I haven't had a single reliability problem with the engine and I think the power is enough. Cosworth has done a pretty good job.
Q: It's said that the Cosworth loses more power at the end of its life compared to other engines. Do you feel that in the car?
HK: Yeah you feel it, but I think it's not the amount you would consider that's very critical. I certainly have had engines at the end of their lives and I've been doing relatively good laptimes. I don't think it's a big issue and I think they can do better. I think the Mercedes benchmark is very good, very, very high, but they worked on that a long, long time. I think Cosworth, in a short time, they've done a really good job. It's a reasonably powerful engine. I don't think we're losing out because of that. I think we're talking about a few tenths, not seconds. I'm not too concerned about that.
Q: Can you feel the difference between the Cosworth and the Mercedes engines in the car?
HK: Yeah, but I don't think that's a fair comparison. This year's car hasn't got the same kind of grip or drag levels compared to the Mercedes and McLaren last year. I think you can only compare the engines if you put them in the same car on the same kind of grip and drag levels.
Q: What's the long-term aim at Lotus? Where does the team, where do you want to be on the grid in the future?
HK: The ultimate target is to start winning races. Winning a world championship with Lotus would be a dream come true. At the moment it's better not to think about that, that's too far ahead. We have a lot of intermediate targets that we need to hit. We need to grow as a team, we need to become bigger, we need to become stronger, more efficient. We need to design a better car. Next year will show us the first true Lotus that is designed by our own people that are already in-house now, that will give us indications what we can do. After that it is development little by little, finding the right areas where to improve and the problems that we have and to fix them. We have all the ingredients. We have a big name behind us, just the name Lotus, a very successful name. Something that is driving us and pushing the team forward as well. I see a lot of positives of that. That's all I'm targeting at the moment.