As the 2010 Formula 1 season draws to close, much of the focus of the media and fans across the world will undoubtedly zero in on the five title protagonists, as they battle through the remaining four (or three, depending on South Korea being ready) Grand Prix.
However, while the leaders prepare to have it out amongst themselves, a very different battle is taking part further down the pack, as the three new teams square up to see who will be top the top dog. Just don’t be fooled; it is just as ferocious as the drive for race wins.
Right now, Lotus Racing’s Heikki Kovalainen is leading the Championship for the new teams, but to get a better understanding of how things are coming along, I put some questions to the man himself.
Formula 1 Archive: Heikki, now that Formula 1 has left Europe and is well into the final stages of the season, how are you feeling about the year so far, both in terms of your performance and the performance of Team Lotus? Are you close to where you thought you might be pre-season?
Heikki Kovalainen: I think we’re all pretty pleased with where we are. We want to be the best of the new teams, so we’re where we aim to be. I think any more than that would have been very difficult, as we had such short time to prepare for the season, so we are where I thought we should be, but we’re not complacent. We want to keep pushing, and though we’ve frozen development on the 2010 car as we’re working on next year’s car, we’re still in a good fight with the other new guys, so that’s good.
F1A: You have previously driven for both Renault and McLaren – both very established teams – was it difficult to team up with what was essentially a brand new outfit? What is different about working with a new squad and what are your impressions so far?
HK: It was obviously a big change – when I first went to the factory there were only about 40 people there, and Mike and Silvi’s dogs running around! But Mike and Tony brought in people who knew exactly what they are doing, so since day one we’ve been totally professional, and I don’t have to worry about the little things – I can get on with driving.
There’s a really good atmosphere in the team and we all get on really well. Tony and mike are both very open and that extends to the whole team, so it’s welcoming, but we’re as ambitious as anyone else out there.
F1A: The Lotus initially looked quite reliable during its early runs, but there were a number of failures (particularly hydraulics) in the first half of the year. Did it affect morale or do difficulties like that make you and your team more determined to succeed?
HK: We always knew there would be problems – that’s obvious in year one, and with half the time to prepare as the other guys, but it was a bit disappointing when you want to push and then something out of our control means you have to pull over. But the team’s morale never dropped, not once, it makes us stronger and gives us experience.
F1A:You have a very established team mate, Jarno Trulli, and in Mike Gascoyne, a very experienced Chief Technical Officer; how is that relationship coming along? Having joined a smaller team, do you find you have more chance to make a difference?
HK: It’s really good, both with Jarno and Mike. I get on well with Jarno, and there’s no issues between us at all. With Mike, he’s honest, straightforward and says what he thinks, so that means there’s no politics and you know where you stand. That makes my job easier, so I couldn’t ask for more.
F1A: While not necessarily battling for points, there has been a battle to be the best of the ‘new teams.’ Have you found this to be a good motivator for both yourself and the team?
HK: It’s been great – we all want to finish in tenth, and as the battles get tighter it makes it all the more exciting on and off track, for the fans and the teams.
F1A: Of course the aim is – like all teams – to get some points on the board. Do you think points are a realistic proposition in the remaining races?
HK: I think points will need one of those crazy races, but you can never say never. We need to make sure we’re there at the end, to take advantage of anything that happens ahead of us, and recently we’ve seen better reliability, and our race pace has always been good compared to our direct rivals, so we’re putting ourselves in the best position if anything does happen.
F1A: Despite the ban on in-season testing, the team has made some wonderful strides this year in terms of performance gain, but still appear to be an average of around one second shy of the mid-pack at some circuits. Is it frustrating to have come so far, but still be just that little bit shy of the pace? Are you confident that the team will competing with the mid-pack for points in 2011?
HK: We always knew this would happen – nothing in F1 stands still and as we have progressed so have the teams around us – that’s just the way it is. It’s not frustrating, we have our own battle to concentrate on, and in Singapore we showed that when we do have the chance to fight with the midfield we’re not afraid to do so.
F1A: When on television and other media during the year, you appear happier and more relaxed than – do you have any thoughts on that?
HK: I guess I am – I love the team, I have friends and family around me and we have a really bright future ahead of us, so it’s a good time to be racing.
F1A: During the recent summer break, you released a short video of you playing drums with the rock band, Nightwish. Did you ever see yourself as a potential rock star or is drumming just a form of relaxation?
HK: Haha! It’s for relaxation. I’m friends with the guys in Nightwish, and it was great to get the chance to play with them, but for now it’s about racing. Who knows…
F1A: Do you have a stand out moment for 2010 so far?
HK: There’s been quite a few so far, racing in Monaco where I was fighting with quicker cars and also in Malaysia to get into Q2 in front of the home fans. Also, lapping the Virgins at Singapore was good but I think we’re all focused on getting to the end of the season and securing tenth. That’ll be the stand-out moment.