Heikki Kovalainen interview

Before Sunday’s Monaco Grand Prix I sat down with Caterham’s Heikki Kovalainen to talk about the challenges he faces driving for one of Formula 1’s smaller teams……

Stephen English: What are the big differences between racing for Caterham compared to your time with McLaren and Renault?

Heikki Kovalainen: For me the main difference is when I cross the start finish straight straight and I see the lap time on the dash and it is not fast enough. This is really the main difference for me. As a team I think that we have grown and as we are now we work really well. I am really happy with the way we go racing; how we prepare the cars, how we prepare for sessions, how we run the cars and how we do the debriefs and how we handle the problems.
I think, for me, it is as good as any other team but the main difference with the race team come from the factory. Obviously the factory is not as big and as efficient as someone like McLaren so we can’t react to a problem as quickly as McLaren can. And then really as a driver the grip is the main difference. I don’t have the same grip and the performance in the car as I had in those cars.

SE: There have been some technical changes lately at the team with John Iley hired from McLaren as performance director what benefit will this be to the team?
HK: I think it is a reasonable change and will have a reasonable impact on the team. He is an aerodynamist and aerodynamics are the weak area for us. We don’t have grip and enough performance in the car. So he will be directly involved with that and when you see his track record it is very good. He has had stints at Ferrari and McLaren so he is very good at what he does. Everyone is expecting a lot from him and maybe other people will join the team and strengthen that area.

SE: It looks like the top level of the team is filled with very good people. It must be a case of not having the sheer volume of numbers that most of the grid has back at base?
HK: Yeah, we can never have as many people as someone like Red Bull or McLaren or Ferrari because it is not realistic. We are a small team and we need to somehow be more efficient and hiring someone like John is the right kind of step for us.

SE: Thinking in terms of people like Mike Gascoyne or Mark Smith. Both made their names with small teams on small budgets such as Tyrell and Jordan when they were working on a shoestring and getting the most that they could from the budget. Presumably that has to be the main strength of Caterham going forward?
HK: Yeah I would say so. Like I said we can never be as big and powerful as McLaren, or at least not in the near future, so we have to find more efficient ways of working. It is not necessarily big money hirings it is bringing in the right talent and bringing motivation into the team.

SE: It’s about spending the right money on the right people.
HK: Yeah exactly.

SE: Presumably making it into Q2 in Bahrain would have been the highpoint of the season for you?
HK: I would say Barcelona race was for me the best race of the season for me. I think qualifying I’ve had a few good laps in qualifying the last year and a half but Bahrain we got into Q2 because of Michael’s misfortune and really relatively speaking that qualifying session wasn’t any better than say in Shanghai or Melbourne where I had a good qualifying session. It was really that people saw us in Q2 and while it might have looked better my own performance was similar to what I have done before.
In Barcelona I made a mistake in qualifying but in the race I think it was an excellent race. I had four very good stints and didn’t have any issues with the tyres. So I would say that is the best moment so far in the season. It’s always fun to be in Q2 but realistically we are not there yet our pace is not good enough to go there regularly so if it is because of some misfortune I don’t think that we can take too much grade from it. Really we have to be working on our performance and make sure that we can close the gap.

SE: Looking back at Barcelona when Pastor [Maldonado] and Williams got the win would that give you a lot of heart to see the progress that they have made in a relatively short period of time?
HK: I think that it shows how big of a jump they have done since last year when we basically fighting with them at the end of last year in quite a few races. They have obviously made a huge step forward. I’ve always thought of Williams as a good team, they still are a relatively big team, and they have actually had moments and races where they looked very quick but for one reason or another something has happened and they have not been able to stay there and finish the business. In a way it didn’t really surprise me that much that Williams won a race maybe that it was so soon. I was expecting them to be at the top end.

SE: One of the main strengths, from the outside looking in, at your performances this year would be the consistency that you have during a race. Do you look at this as one of your strengths?
HK: I think over the last year or so I have carried on the same performance. Both qualifying and races have been good and I feel that I have been able to get a level in the races that is required and I think that I am understanding the tyres and when I can push them or back.
I learned a lot about qualifying from Jarno who was a great qualifier. In our first year I think he beat me 11-7 or something in qualifying and I was spending a lot of time looking at what he did in qualifying. How he always saved a good lap and I think that I understand what he was doing, I don’t know if he understood what he was doing but I did look very deeply at it!
Last year I was able to out-qualify him I think all but twice and the race performances were also consistent. I feel quite confident in my own performances but it is better not to talk about it too much because the guys who are winning races are the ones who deserve the glory. At the moment what I am doing is making sure that I keep my own performance level at the maximum and then think about the future.

SE: How frustrating is it to drive at the maximum throughout qualifying and the race and still finish in, lets say, 18th position?
HK: It’s not frustrating for me. It is what it is. The last thing to do is to get frustrated and let it get into your head and lose focus. The main thing is to keep the focus at 100% and keep pushing at whatever the car performance is and keep working with the team as well as you can. Then hopefully one day when the car is good you can carry on doing the same job and hopefully the results will be better.

SE: You’re here three years. Is this the last year of your contract?
HK: Yes

SE: Are you looking to stay on?
HK: I haven’t thought about it yet; it’s early in the year. I think that at the moment I will wait and see what direction we are heading in and then make my mind up later on.

SE: Are you happy with the progress that has been made?
HK: So far yes. I guess this year we haven’t hit our target and no-one is happy about this but in the problematic areas, which is aerodynamics, I think that what we have done lately is positive. We have the right people coming to the team and raising our capacity. It will help that area to improve so I think with a bit more time I will talk racing with them.

SE: In relation to the tyres, they are one of the main talking points at the moment. What is your opinion on the Pirelli’s?
HK: I don’t have a problem with the tyres. I think that they are challenging and you don’t always get a great balance but it’s the same for everybody. I’m not going to complain; I drive what I’ve been given and I’ve been given these and I now have to make the most of it.

SE: Would the biggest problem with these tyres be that you are carrying 160kg of fuel at the start of the race and there is obviously a lot of strain on them for the stint? At the end of the race everyone’s pace is pretty consistent but it is at the start of the race that we see a large drop off in performance.
HK: I think the main thing at the start of the race is that the track is still quite dirty and green and at the end of the race when everyone has used three or four sets of tyres and a lot of rubber has gone down the grip level has improved and we find more and more grip and can go quicker. At the beginning of the race carry 160kg of fuel it is something that it is something that means that first stints can last only a few laps. Even in qualifying though the car is low fuel and we are going for it and sometimes the balance is quite difficult to get.

SE: How do the tyres compare to the Bridgestone’s of two year’s ago?
HK: They have less grip and less stability, I think the compounds are not as aggressive. It is the tyre we have going forward. It doesn’t feel mega different to the Bridgestone. We are going slower but it is still quick it’s just a different philosophy. It’s still a Formula 1 car so it is still quick!

SE: The weather for this weekend is forecasting showers surely that would give you a better chance to shine, do you have a preference for conditions?
HK: I think obviously if it rains it would be better for us. If it rains it would be a better opportunity for us as it would be a bigger variation to everyone. It’s very easy to fall off obviously it would be a better opportunity for us but it can also backfire on us and cause some problems. Honestly though I don’t mind, any conditions are fine with me and we just have to make sure that we finish the race and whatever opportunities there are we have to make sure that we take them.

SE: Are there any upgrades coming down the line?
HK: Yeah we will. We had an upgrade at Mugello that we were testing for Barcelona but it wasn’t working. We are modifying that upgrade and we will put it on the car next race and then we will put it on the car after that.

SE: OK, that’s great. Thanks for taking the time to talk to me Heikki.
HK: No problem.

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