Heikki Kovalainen will fill in for fellow Finn Kimi Raikkonen at Lotus for the final two races of 2013, the team confirmed today in a statement on the Lotus F1 Team website.
Kovalainen has been released from his contract with Caterham for the remainder of the season so that he can compete for Lotus. He had been assisting with the development of this year’s Caterham car by taking part in Friday practice sessions for the team.
When Raikkonen announced last week that he would not be available for the final two races of the season, Lotus had to scramble to find the most competitive driver possible to fill Raikkonen’s vacant seat. In particular, Lotus needed a driver who could help them in their quest to take second place in the Constructors’ Championship.
Among the drivers approached were Sauber’s Nico Hulkenberg, who turned down the offer so that he could see out his season with Sauber, and retired seven-time World Champion Michael Schumacher, who was disinclined to make a second comeback to the sport he dominated so thoroughly a decade ago.
Kovalainen is an experienced and highly rated driver, which explains his appeal for Lotus. They approached Kovalainen and Caterham and it was arranged that Kovalainen would be able to return to the grid with Lotus this weekend in Austin, Texas.
Lotus team principal Eric Boullier explained the decision to put Kovalainen in Raikkonen’s car:
“Obviously we had to move quickly following the news of Kimi’s non-participation in the final two races of this season, and we found ourselves facing a difficult decision in terms of who should take the wheel in Austin and São Paulo. On the one hand we had our reserve driver Davide Valsecchi – who is a talented young driver that has shown a great deal of promise – and on the other we had the opportunity to bring in a seasoned Formula 1 competitor in Heikki.
“Whilst we have every faith in Davide’s abilities, we are obviously involved in a tight Constructors’ Championship battle, so it was decided that the experience Heikki could bring to the team would be invaluable as we aim to finish the year in the best position possible. We must thank Tony Fernandes and Caterham F1 Team for their professional conduct in allowing Heikki to join us for the final races of this season.”
Kovalainen expressed his enthusiasm for the task he faces in the next two weeks:
“It is a fantastic opportunity for me to join Lotus F1 Team for the final two races of 2013. We’ve seen this year that the E21 is a car which can win races and finish on the podium, so I will be pushing hard for the best results possible. 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. This is a great opportunity for me, so I would like to thank Tony Fernandes and Caterham F1 Team for allowing me to take advantage of it.”
To date, Kovalainen has competed in 110 Grands Prix and has scored one victory, four podiums and one pole position. He will be in a competitive car again this weekend for the first time since he left McLaren at the end of 2009 and will be looking to make the most of the opportunity to score points again in Formula One.
Of the five top teams in Formula One – Red Bull, Ferrari, Mercedes, McLaren and Lotus – only Lotus have said nothing about their 2014 driver line-ups. McLaren haven’t confirmed Jenson Button yet for next season, but that is a mere formality now that Kimi Raikkonen has signed for Ferrari.
Raikkonen’s departure from Lotus at the end of this season presents a problem for the team from Enstone. They still have Romain Grosjean, who is doing a reasonable job this season, but he is relatively inexperienced. Lotus will want to have a driver who they believe can challenge for the World Championship, and Grosjean (who has yet to win a race) is not at that level at this early stage in his career.
So Lotus are looking for at least one driver for 2014, and they would ideally like to select their team leader from within the ranks of current F1 drivers. They therefore have a few options. Most prominently, now that he’s out of a drive at Ferrari, Felipe Massa is on the market. Massa has won 11 races and narrowly missed out on the Drivers’ Championship in 2008. The experience of fighting for the title could make Massa an attractive option for Lotus, although he has not shown that level of performance in the five subsequent seasons.
Another strong candidate is Sauber’s Nico Hulkenberg, who has long been rumoured to be on Ferrari’s radar, but missed out on a 2014 Ferrari drive to Kimi Raikkonen. Hulkenberg came into Formula One with Williams in 2010 after winning the 2009 GP2 series comfortably and impressed in his debut F1 season, taking pole position at the Brazilian Grand Prix. But he was not retained in 2011 by Williams, who preferred to take advantage of the sponsorship that came with Venezuelan Pastor Maldonado.
After spending 2011 as Force India’s test and reserve driver, Hulkenberg landed a race drive at Force India for 2012, but then jumped ship to Sauber in 2013. He has not yet had a chance to show what he can do in a properly competitive car, but has consistently delivered strong performances in each of his three F1 seasons. He is considered a champion of the future and is expected to drive for Ferrari at some point in his career.
Hulkenberg would provide not only talent and a bit of experience to Lotus, but he would also probably be cheaper than a driver of Massa’s success, as he has not yet won a race or even stood on the podium. Lotus could therefore spend more money on developing their car and take advantage of Hulkenberg’s talents at the same time.
Other drivers who have yet to make decisions about 2014 are Force India’s Adrian Sutil and Paul Di Resta. Sutil has 102 Grands Prix under his belt, and is well regarded in Formula One. He has only ever driven for Force India (in 2007, he drove for Spyker, which became Force India the following season) and has a good relationship with the team, which suggests that he is likely to extend his Force India contract past the end of 2013.
Di Resta has said right from the beginning of 2013 that he is looking to move to a more competitive team. He looked quick in the early part of this season, before Force India started to struggle when Pirelli revised their 2013 tyres, and recorded an impressive fourth-place finish at the Bahrain Grand Prix.
Heikki Kovalainen, who has won a race for McLaren and is currently assisting Caterham with the development of their car, is probably the most sought-after driver to not have a current F1 race seat, and it seems highly unlikely that he will remain on the sidelines again in 2014. If Lotus were to offer Kovalainen a drive for 2014, he would surely grab it with both hands.
Lotus has two test drivers. Jerome D’Ambrosio raced in Formula One for Virgin (now Marussia) in 2011 and made one appearance for Lotus in 2012, standing in for the banned Romain Grosjean at the Italian Grand Prix, where D’Ambrosio finished 13th. Davide Valsecchi, the other Lotus test driver, is the current GP2 series champion, but has yet to make his Formula One debut. It seems unlikely that either D’Ambrosio or Valsecchi will take the step up to a Lotus race seat in 2014. It is more likely that Lotus will seek a more experienced driver currently on the grid.
However, for the second Lotus seat anything is possible. Romain Grosjean has not been confirmed for 2014, which means his seat is potentially up for grabs. If Lotus decide to replace Grosjean, they could well look to a less experienced driver as a development plan for future seasons. Whatever decision is made, it is likely to be confirmed before the end of the season, as next year’s major regulation changes make it necessary for teams to start 2014 preparations as early as possible, and that includes integrating new drivers into their organisations.
Testing for the 2013 Formula One season begins on 5 February, which is just 22 days away. All of the teams will be quite far into their pre-season car development and anticipation for the new season is no doubt building in team factories all over Britain and parts of Europe. But at Caterham, a crucial part of pre-season preparation has yet to be completed – the all-important driver line-up.
Caterham signed Charles Pic towards the end of last year, after the Frenchman impressed during his debut season at Marussia. But the identity of Pic’s team-mate is as yet unknown. Caterham’s 2012 drivers were Heikki Kovalainen and Vitaly Petrov, and between them they delivered tenth place in the Constructors’ Championship, but it now looks possible that neither will feature on the 2013 grid.
Kovalainen is unusual in a back-of-the-field team in that he was paid a salary by Caterham (formerly Lotus) for the past three seasons – most small-budget teams look for drivers who provide funding from their personal sponsors. Kovalainen has resisted the “pay driver” label and is determined to find a race drive without having to secure his own sponsorship. Unfortunately for the highly regarded Finnish driver, budget is king in a developing team and it therefore comes as no surprise that he is not even in the running to retain his seat at Caterham.
Petrov, on the other hand, has been a pay driver from the start of his Formula One career. After two seasons with Renault (now Lotus), Petrov lost his seat to Romain Grosjean and moved to Caterham, where he was expected to be outpaced by Kovalainen. Instead, the Russian had an impressive 2012, in which he scored a vital 11th place in Brazil to secure tenth place in the Constructors’ Championship for the team. Petrov is expected to remain with Caterham if he can find sufficient funding, but that plan seems to be stalling at the moment as Petrov’s management struggles to secure the necessary sponsorship.
Caterham are reportedly looking at three possible alternatives to Petrov – 2012 Caterham reserve driver Giedo van der Garde, 2012 GP2 runner-up Luis Razia and 2012 Williams driver Bruno Senna – all of whom are expected to bring larger budgets than Petrov. The Russian does have the advantage of three years of Formula One experience, and has completed a full season with Caterham. Whether or not that experience will outweigh the larger budgets of his rivals remains to be seen.
At the end of 2009, Heikki Kovalainen left McLaren, where he had won a race and featured on the podium three times, to join the all-new Lotus team, and suddenly found himself at the back of the field in a car that was not capable of points.
Fast forward to now, and the team has changed its name to Caterham, but has still scored no points and does not look likely to do so this season, unless the cars in front prove to be particularly unreliable. Significant progress has been made in closing the gap to the midfield, but for the time being the gap remains. Nonetheless, Kovalainen has spent his time at Caterham pushing to the limit, extracting every last bit of performance from the car in an attempt to get results. And his efforts have not gone unnoticed – as the Finn approaches the end of his contract with Caterham, there are rumours that he may be signed by a big team, perhaps McLaren or Ferrari.
Kovalainen left McLaren on good terms, and so a return to Woking is not impossible. With Lewis Hamilton looking more and more likely to leave the team, the probability of there being a seat available is steadily increasing, and Kovalainen’s name has been mentioned in the media as a possible replacement.
No seat has been the subject of more speculation than that of Felipe Massa at Ferrari. Every driver wants to race for the famous Italian team, and it has looked likely for some time that Massa will be replaced. Last week, Finnish television company MTV3 claimed that Kovalainen’s management had been summoned to Maranello to discuss a 2013 drive.
Whatever happens for Kovalainen next season, his efforts are clearly paying off. He is easily the most talked about driver in a “new” team (Caterham, Marussia and HRT), which is a direct result of his performance on the track. When he was at McLaren in 2008-2009, he was perhaps lacking a bit of experience. Three years developing a team like Caterham have given him time to mature as a driver. It is about time he had a chance to get back in a quick car and show what he can do.
Heikki Kovalainen: “Silverstone is a great track to race at, both because it’s one of our two home races and because it’s a proper driver’s track. Even with the changes that have been made over the years it is still what F1 is all about – high speed corners that really push the performance of the car. The new section is probably the least exciting bit of the track from inside the cockpit but the classic corners from Copse and Maggots to Beckets is right up there with some of the best corners on the calendar.
“Honestly, I can’t wait to get back in the car and see what we can do at this year’s British Grand Prix. At the last race in Valencia we clearly made improvements, enough to help me put the car into Q2 on merit and we have more upgrades coming for Silverstone. For this race it’s important that we carry our qualifying speed and good reliability through into Sunday as issues like the KERS problem I had in Valencia impact all the hard work the team is doing at the factory and in the wind tunnel to get us where we want to be. If we can do that I think we can have another very good weekend and I’m really looking forward to giving our home fans something to cheer for.”
Vitaly Petrov: “The British Grand Prix is one of the best races of the calendar for several reasons. It’s a fantastic place to race at because of the exciting atmosphere and the special love the British fans have for motorsport. As the UK is home to a lot of the teams, including Caterham F1 Team, the whole place is always full of fans, whether it’s raining or the sun is burning everybody! They are some of the most knowledgeable, passionate fans in the world and they give the whole place a special atmosphere all weekend.
“As we’ll be bringing more new parts to the British Grand Prix I think it’s another race where we’ll be able to take a step forwards. I’m sure everyone else will be bringing upgrades so we need to make sure that we don’t just make gains, but we improve more than our nearest rivals. That’s a big challenge but after seeing the gap to Toro Rosso shrink in Valencia we have a clear target just ahead and that gave the whole team a real boost. Hopefully we’ll be able to make similar levels of progress at Silverstone – if we do I think the British Grand Prix could be very interesting. The team made great progress in Valencia and I really hope that we will continue in the same manner at the next race.”
Mark Smith, Technical Director: “We left Valencia after a very positive weekend for the whole team. One of the most pleasing aspects for me was seeing that the numbers we had predicted for the upgrades we brought there matched what we did on track, and that gives us a lot of confidence that future upgrade packages should continue the trend we are seeing of the gap to the teams ahead shrinking.
“For Silverstone we will be bringing a number of new parts, including new rear bodywork, a revised exhaust layout and a number of smaller updates in other bodywork areas around the car. I do not want to make any predictions at this point on what they could be worth, but if we repeat the step forward we made in Valencia we should have another positive weekend.”
Tony Fernandes, Team Principal, Caterham F1 Team: “The European Grand Prix was a very significant race for our team as it was the first time we took on and beat an established midfield team in a straight fight on merit in qualifying. Yes, Heikki’s benefited from the issues Mark Webber had on Saturday, but we are now quick enough to take advantage of that sort of opportunity and knock one of the established teams back into the positions we have been filling since we started in the sport just over two and a half years ago.
“Our performance on Sunday was also extremely positive, with all areas of the team performing at 100% to help us record our best positions of the season, despite both cars being forced to change nosecones after contact with the Toro Rossos. We said at the start of the season that our goals for this year are to score our first point and to join the midfield and I think it is fair to say that we are achingly close to being able to achieve those targets.
“Silverstone will give us another chance to show that we can make good on those objectives and the upgrades we are bringing will give both Heikki and Vitaly the chance to repeat our qualifying performance in Valencia, and, more importantly, to be able to fight for their track positions from the moment the lights go out on Sunday, right to the end of the race. To see our cars racing a team who were 1.6 seconds ahead of us in qualifying for the first race this year is obviously a very good feeling, for me and my fellow shareholders, our partners and sponsors, our fans and the whole team.”