It’s one of those questions that occasionally refuses to be answered. It is subjective and unquantifiable. But in comparison to his team mate last season, one could presume Heikki Kovalainen is actually quite fast. Fast enough to beat Lewis Hamilton? Why not, after all, I don’t believe we’ve really seen the best of Kovalainen yet. To follow in the steps of Mika Hakkinen and Kimi Raikkonen will be hard, being partnered to Hamilton will be harder still. But driving a McLaren competitively at the very sharp end of the grid? I guess the young Finn will either sink, or swim.
In 2007, Heikki debuted in the less-than-great Renault R27. The reasons why the car wasn’t great are probably varied and I can even imagine the team don’t fully understand them. But surely the loss of Fernando Alonso would have contributed to a small part of it. But in loosing Alonso we gained Kovalainen, and despite a shaky start the Finn clawed his way back to finish higher in the tables than Giancarlo Fisichella. This alone was probably what caused the Anglo-French team to drop the Italian – being beaten by your younger and inexperienced team mate is possibly the worst thing for a driver to endure. Looking at Alonso’s body-language over the course of the season proves this point to some degree.
So Heikki saw off his team mate in 2007. An experienced driver who has won races, claimed poles when he arguably shouldn’t have done and developed cars to their maximum. Perhaps in his twilight, Fisichella might be, but you cannot re-write the history book. The book that talks of demoralising Jenson Button, Felipe Massa, Alex Wurz…
What can we expect from Kovalainen in 2008 then? If he can conquer Fisichella, can he conquer Hamilton? Heikki insisted that driver equality was the key factor in his decision to move from the Renault stable. How much of that is true we will never know, as from the outside it does look as though the Finn was sent on his way, albeit with Ron’s telephone number in his pocket. But if Heikki does get the equality he strives for, and if McLaren can produce a legal and fast MP4-23, could Heikki really give Lewis a run for his money?
As I mentioned at the beginning, there are a few question marks over Kovalainen, not least his ability to perform under intense pressure. I’m guessing this attribute wasn’t really tested too much last season, but Hamilton’s skin certainly grew thicker as 2007 progressed, and on this level the golden-boy of Woking may have the advantage. But if it came down to out-and-out speed? Raw and unadulterated ability? Well, I’m going to reserve my prediction until after the Australian Grand Prix.