Think about who said this: “I’m not going to take it slow and steady. I’m going to give it maximum attack.” Or this: “I’m a very competitive guy. If I have a chance to overtake, I don’t need to be asked twice.” And this: “I like to attack when I drive and really use the front of the car in corners.”
If the quotes sound familiar, it’s because they’re exactly the sort of thing double world champion Fernando Alonso would say. Uncannily, they came from the lips of the man who takes over his seat at Renault, Heikki Kovalainen.
The Finn has been backed by the French firm since 2001, but until now has been gaining experience in Formula Three, the Nissan World Series and GP2. That he’s not raced in F1 yet is more to do with Renault’s array of talent than any lack of ability.
Boss Flavio Briatore explained: “He was ready for his F1 debut in 2002, but we held him back.” The reason? Renault had Alonso on its books – a virtual rookie himself when he made his race debut for the squad in 2003.
Two world titles later, the Spaniard has gone. “I had a big smile on my face when I heard Fernando had signed for McLaren,” Kovalainen said, knowing it signified his time had come.
Alonso’s defection meant Renault was contractually obliged to pair the 25-year-old in its race team with Giancarlo Fisichella. So Kovalainen, a man with zero grand prix starts, goes into 2007 in a car that, on recent form, should win races, if not the title.
“It’s a big step from GP2 to F1,” he countered. “I feel ready and think we can challenge – yet I don’t know if it will be this year or next year. But before I can consider winning, I need to finish in the first race in Australia and score points. Then we’ll see. I want to be as high in the standings as possible.”
It’s an assessment that shows Kovalainen is confident, but not cocky – and it proves he’s nothing like other monosyllabic F1 Finns such as Mika Hakkinen and Kimi Raikkonen. Renault engine guru Rob White said: “What you see is what you get with Heikki.
“He’s spent a lot of time immersing himself in the team. He’s an easy guy to like.” In spite of, or perhaps because of, his outgoing nature, Kovalainen claims to be close to Raikkonen. But while the Ferrari star is known for liking a drink or five, Renault’s man is more reticent about his own social life.
After confessing to being keen on girls and fast cars, he added: “Maybe I just haven’t been caught yet, but that will probably change. I haven’t spoken to Kimi since New Year’s Eve – and he seemed to be having a good time!”
Party animal or not, Kovalainen will be judged on his track performance, and he’s confident that will come. “I’m not at the top of my game yet. But by the end of the season, I will be.”
More tellingly, others are expecting big things of him. Alonso has claimed Heikki will be the revelation of 2007. Briatore goes further. He said: “With the right engine, Fernando could have taken the 2003 title. I don’t know if Heikki is such a great talent yet, but in the right car he should win races.
“This year will be close; the champion may need only four or five wins – and why not a rookie?” If Briatore is right, Heikki may soon have the results to back up his Alonso-like chat.