Kovalainen on McLaren: ‘I didn’t get everything out of the team’

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You may recall the 2007 season for McLaren. You probably remember the struggle between two-time world champion Fernando Alonso and rookie phenom Lewis Hamilton. The infighting bled over to the media, the race, the pit lane and just about every other crevice of F1. It was ugly and by many estimations, perhaps avoidable. Alonso’s premature departure from the team was all but guaranteed but he, for the most part, kept his mouth shut on the events that led to his exit. In large part, he has continued to keep his mouth shut regarding the incident and that’s amid frequent and prodding questions from a curious media. That was then and this is now…or is it?

Kovalainen

Former drive Heikki Kovalainen, who took Alonso’s seat at the British F1 team, has offered a warning to current world champion Jenson button who is taking Kovalainen’s vacant seat alongside former world champion Lewis Hamilton. The Telegraph reports that Kovalainen was more critical of his former employer than Alonso has ever been saying:

“I think I know why it didn’t work out for me and I am starting from another place now and let’s see how it works out.
“I am doing things differently at Lotus and my target is to get 100 per cent out of the team all the time. At McLaren I felt I didn’t get everything out of the team.”
Is it the comments of a disgruntled and beaten former driver? Was he no match for Hamilton and thus embarrassed and eager to justify his poor performance? Could he be stating a fact that many have suggested is true based upon the actions of the team in 2007?

Sour grapes rarely go over well on discerning ears but Kovalainen doesn’t seem the kind of person who would start spurious rumors for the justification of his own hide. He is, after all, employed by Lotus F1 Racing and doesn’t need to worry about a ride for 2010. This isn’t a case of blaming the team in order to find a ride aka Nelson Piquet Jr. Kovalainen may be speaking out of school but from a 60,000 ft. view, it does seem McLaren are solely focused on Lewis Hamilton. Is that wrong? Probably not if you subscribe to my line of thinking.

Hamilton is amazingly talented and quick and the team has to have a superstar to take them to the title. If Kovalainen was not on par with Hamilton in equal kit, then the team had a decision to make. Kovalainen’s performance was spotty and team oriented when called for (Germany 2008). His pace seemed on and off and the entire two-year stint at McLaren had me scratching my head as to why his performance could win races on one day and fail to qualify the next.

Perhaps it was inconsistency that plagued Kovalainen. If we consider his GP2 career, consistency was not an issue. He nearly wont he title if it wasn’t for a resurgent Nico Rosberg at the ART team. Kovalainen had five victories that year and finished 2nd in the championship. Perhaps his stint at Renault can lend some clarity to the inconsistency issue or support a notion that Kovalainen just isn’t on par with the top drivers in F1.

As a test driver at Renault, Kovalainen was under Alonso’s tutelage. Alonso won the championship in 2006 for the French team and promptly left for McLaren in 2007. Kovalainen was promoted to the empty seat in 2007 and finished the year in 7th place in the championship. Team boss Flavio Briatore was quoted as saying that he promoted Kovalainen and was hoping that in the Finn, he would find the anti-Alonso. The year was a rocky start for Kovalainen and Briatore admitted he was hoping for better the following year.

After a sour spell at McLaren, Alonso came back to Renault in 2008 and Kovalainen filled the vacancy at McLaren. Kovalainen finished the year in 7th place in the championship. Renault did not swing back to winning form with the return of Alonso as the Spaniard finished 5th in the world championship that year.

In 2009 Kovalainen finished 12th in the world championship while Alonso finished 9th in a recalcitrant Renault. From these comparisons you might be able to suggest that Kovalainen has excelled more in the GP2 car than in an F1 car. His performance has been off the front runner pace and perhaps one could suggest that McLaren may not have lacked commitment in the Finn but perhaps they lacked confidence in his ability to produce results. Are there grand deductions to be made from my recap? Of course not but just looking topically you may be able to suggest that Kovalainen has struggled since entering F1 while showing moments of terrific pace. That, in and of itself, is the definition of inconsistent.

Interestingly for me, Kovalainen did very well in several qualifying session during 2008 only to be hobbled by myriad reasons during the actual race. The culprit seemed to be the tire wear he was experiencing and it was unique in that his driving style (very Button-esque) is a smooth, easier and less aggressive style. Hamilton, conversely, is a more aggressive driver and in 2008 that style seemed more fitting to the MP4-23 chassis.

Ultimately you can argue several different ways on the Kovalainen issue but perhaps the best measure will be to see how he does at Lotus F1 Racing. He will be paired with teammate Jarno Trulli who has been known as one of the best qualifiers on the grid and will set a realistic pace for the Lotus’s potential. Perhaps Kovalainen can put the McLaren days behind him and focus on rebuilding a career based upon 100% commitment from his team and 100% commitment and consistency in his driving.

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