Kovalainen began his F1 career as a test driver for Renault in 2006, but with the departure of Fernando Alonso to McLaren for the 2007 season, he found himself promoted to a race seat along side Giancarlo Fisichella.
Debut & Renault (2007)
It was a difficult start to the season for the young Finn as expectations of Renault retaining the Championships for a third successive year were high, but clearly the car just wasn’t up to it. This put added pressure on Heikki and poor performances at the beginning of the season didn’t help. Flavio Briatore reportedly walked off the Renault timing wall at Australia in disgust.
Stunning drives by the Finn at Canada – rising from 22nd on the grid to 4th and at Japan where he took his first and Renault’s one and only podium of the season, with a superb 2nd place. Also 7 consecutive points’ finishes saw Kovalainen eclipse his vastly more experienced team mate, as well as finishing in all but the last race showed that he had put his early season troubles behind him.
He ended the 2007 season with 30 points and was 7th in the Driver Championship, which in any other rookie season that Lewis Hamilton had not débuted in would have assured Kovalainen of ‘Rookie of the Year’.
With Alonso resigning from McLaren moving back to Renault, and the announcement that Nelson Piquet Jr. will take the second Renault seat in 2008, Kovalainen was left without a race seat. However it was later announced that he would fill the vacant seat at McLaren along side Lewis Hamilton. Making for what must be one of the most exciting driver parings on the 2008 grid.
A shaky start to the season saw the Finn collect to 5th place finishes a 3rd place podium result in Malaysia. However at the 2008 Spanish GP a 140mph impact with the barriers at Turn 9 after a rapid tyre deflation on his McLaren left the Finn being airlifted to hospital for further checks. He was back racing at the following round but the crash was one of the worst all season.
A spell of mediocre results followed before he was able to take his maiden F1 Pole Position at the 2008 British GP, just ahead of Red Bulls Mark Webber. Although he was not able to convert this into his maiden win, that result was not far off and at the 2008 Hungarian GP Kovalainen crossed the line first and took the victory. He finished second at the 2008 Italian GP behind young Sebastian Vettel, who took his maiden win for Toro Rosso. Many feel that Kovalainen should have won this race for McLaren as he was supposedly in a far superior car compared to that of Vettel and he missed his chance for a second career win.
Retirements at the Japanese & Chinese GP’s late on in the season hurt McLaren’s chances for the Constructors Championship. He finished the final race at Brazil in 7th, just 2 places behind his team mate and championship winner Lewis Hamilton. Kovalainen was confirmed again to drive for McLaren for 2009.
2009 proved to be a bad season for Kovalainen. The McLaren MP4-24 proved to be the slowest car at the start of the season and this left Kovalainen & Hamilton with little hope of any good results. After failing to finish the first 2 races, Heikki collected his first points in China, beating Lewis to 5th. Between German & Singapore Kovalainen was a regular point scorer, his best result being a 4th at the European GP but he was consistently outclassed by Hamilton who went onto win 2 races in that time. He ended the season with a mere 22 points. However with the announcement that Jenson Button would move to McLaren for 2010, it left the Finn without a drive for the coming season.
It was later announced that Kovalainen had signed to drive for the new Lotus team for 2010. His new team mate will be Jarno Trulli.