Formula 1 US Grand Prix: Why Heikki Kovalainen Can Succeed at Lotus
In Sunday's United States Grand Prix, Heikki Kovalainen will line up on the grid for the first time this season.
He was parachuted into the seat at Lotus as a last-minute replacement for compatriot Kimi Raikkonen, who elected to have back surgery and will miss the final two races. The Finn will partner Romain Grosjean for the U.S. and Brazilian races.
Kovalainen has had zero track time in the Lotus and the first time he'll turn a wheel will be in first practice.
It can be tough to get up to speed quickly in a new car, so expectations aren't high. However, it would be wrong to write Heikki off already—his brief outing could well prove to be a success.
F1 Cars Are Quite Easy to Drive
It's not easy like riding a bike, but for a professional single-seat driver, a modern F1 car is fairly simple to drive at a decent pace.
We saw during the Young Driver Test how quickly kids with no previous experience in F1 got up to speed.
Looking at Friday practice (FP1) data from this year, James Calado in Italy and Rodolfo Gonzalez in Bahrain weren't far behind their teammates despite driving well within themselves, not doing many laps and having very little experience in the cars.
Even Ma Qinghua, who (in the nicest possible way) shouldn't be allowed anywhere near an F1 car, was only 1.5 seconds down on Giedo van der Garde in China.
Kovalainen should be able to quickly establish a foundation in FP1, and build rapidly upon it.
He's Driving a Lotus
The Red Bull is in a league of its own, but the Lotus is currently—probably—the second best car overall.
And the best cars tend to be easier to drive.
Having a car which does what you ask it to do is even more important if you don't have much experience in it.
While a Sauber or (hard to believe) a McLaren might be more erratic and prove more difficult to reach the limit with, the Lotus should be a little more benign.
Kovalainen has experience in the 2013 Caterham, having driven in six Friday practice sessions this year.
That car is powered by the same Renault engine as the Lotus.
One could be forgiven for thinking an engine is an engine. They all produce around the same levels of power, rev to the same limit and propel the cars along at roughly the same speed.
However, each F1 engine has its own little characteristics, which an experienced driver will notice straight away.
So already being familiar with the Renault engine should help Kovalainen.
He Knows the Team
The team currently known as Lotus used to be Renault, and before that Benetton. Some fans call them "Enstone" after where they are based, and the three stars on the car refer to the three constructors' championships the Oxford factory has won (1995, 2005 and 2006).
Kovalainen drove for Renault back in 2007. That's a long time in F1, but many of the team members will be the same, as will some of the team's approaches to doing things.
He mentioned his familiarity with them when he was announced as Raikkonen's replacement. Per Sky Sports:
Jumping into a car so late in the year when you have not been competing in the races all season will be a challenge, but I know the team at Enstone well so I have no concerns about getting up to speed.
Going into a familiar environment is much easier than taking a step into the unknown.
He's Not Actually a Bad Driver
This one is the most important.
Kovalainen isn't world champion class, but he very much knows what he's doing.
He's started 109 races over six years. Three of those were spent in halfway-competitive machinery, and his record reads one win, four podiums and one pole position. That's not a terrible return.
With the exception of Lewis Hamilton in 2008 and 2009, he's tended to have the upper hand over teammates.
He's not going to be as quick as Grosjean (unless we've all been horribly deceived), but two solid points finishes are certainly a possibility.
I shall now go and watch FP1, and hope he doesn't make me look silly by spending the session trundling around seven seconds off the pace. You can follow me on Twitter if you wish: