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.
Kimi Raikkonen will not race at the final two rounds of this season in the United States and Brazil, the Lotus team has confirmed. Raikkonen is set to undergo surgery on his back that will put him out of action for a few weeks.
Raikkonen has complained of back trouble for some time. He reportedly injured his back in a testing crash in 2001, and has apparently had problems ever since. Raikkonen’s back pain affected his race weekend in Singapore earlier this year, where it seemed possible that he would be unable to race. Raikkonen did race, although he struggled heavily in qualifying, and finished third in one of his more impressive drives of the season. Afterwards, he stated that he would likely seek treatment for his back after the end of the season. Based on these most recent developments, it seems that he is unable to put off treatment until the season is finished.
Before the most recent race, in Abu Dhabi, Raikkonen was embroiled in a dispute with Lotus over pay, and it was doubtful if he would race in the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. But Raikkonen arrived and competed, and by the end of the weekend it seemed that he had come to an agreement with the team and would see out the rest of the season.
Whether or not Raikkonen and Lotus have in reality patched up their relationship is now irrelevant. His back surgery means Raikkonen’s time with Lotus is effectively over. It was announced some time ago that Raikkonen is to drive for Ferrari again from 2014, and this latest announcement means he has already driven his last race for Lotus.
The big question for Lotus now is: who will drive Raikkonen’s car in the final two races of the season? Davide Valsecchi is the team’s third driver this season, but he has not yet raced in Formula One. Valsecchi has driven this year’s Lotus on two occasions – once in pre-season testing and again at the Young Driver Test at Silverstone in July – but that is by no means ideal preparation for a race weekend. He has been present at the races this season in his role as reserve driver, and it looked possible for a while that he would race in Abu Dhabi before Raikkonen turned up.
In terms of team development, Valsecchi is the obvious choice. He is the team’s reserve driver, and they are presumably grooming him for a possible race drive in the future. If he is given the nod to race over the next two weeks, Valsecchi will have a chance to prove his worth to the team and justify the faith they have already shown in him.
Lotus are currently fourth in the Constructors’ Championship and aiming to catch Ferrari, who are 26 points ahead in third place. In order to do that, they need to score significant points at each of the two remaining races. While there’s no doubt that Grosjean is capable of two strong finishes, Valsecchi is an unknown quantity in Formula One. All drivers take some time to get used to racing in F1 machinery, and that suggests that Valsecchi might, through no fault of his own, struggle to produce performances that will help his team to third place in the Constructors’ Championship.
Therefore, Lotus might want to look to a more experienced driver as a safer option in terms of points scoring ability. In 2012, Lotus put Jérôme D’Ambrosio in Romain Grosjean’s car when Grosjean was banned for the Italian Grand Prix. D’Ambrosio did not score points on that occasion – he finished 13th – but he has 20 Grand Prix starts to his name, which is at least some experience.
There is the admittedly not very strong possibility that Lotus might try to lure Nico Hulkenberg away from Sauber for the final two races of the season. Hulkenberg has been linked with the team for a possible race drive in 2014. If that deal has in fact been done, it would make sense for Lotus to try to integrate Hulkenberg into the team as soon as possible. That would, of course, raise the issue of who would drive Hulkenberg’s Sauber in the final two rounds of the 2013 season.
Lotus have not as yet announced who the replacement driver will be. All they have said is, “The team will make an announcement about the replacement driver for the United States and Brazilian Grands Prix in due course.”
Davide Valsecchi has been announced as the Lotus team’s third driver for the 2013 season. The 26 year old Italian was Team Lotus (now Caterham) test driver in 2011, and made his F1 weekend debut at the 2011 Malaysian Grand Prix when he replaced Heikki Kovalainen for the first Friday practice session. He then went on to win the GP2 championship in 2012 and tested for Lotus at the Young Driver Test in Abu Dhabi at the end of last season, impressing the management and engineers sufficiently to secure a more permanent role with the team.
Lotus team principal Eric Boullier said, “… we have tested Davide during our Young Driver Test in Abu Dhabi, so we could have a clear picture about what he is capable of and what he is doing… I think he did perform well, but not only performing, he did the job the engineer was expecting him to do, so that was a clear tick in the box.”
“I’m really happy that the team want me on board and I’m excited about the future,” Valsecchi said. “I hope that this is a really good start to a career in Formula 1.
“Every day I will do the very best job that I can to give Lotus F1 Team the same passion and commitment that I showed last year. My last season in GP2 in 2012 was something I really focussed on, and in the end I succeeded. Now in Formula 1 my target will be a little different, but my focus to do the very best is still the same.
“I very much hope, step by step, to get into Formula 1 as a race driver, and being here as third driver is as near as you can get. It’s a great opportunity here – If I do the best job I can this year then it will open up my chances for the future, and we’ll see if I’m good enough.”
The Lotus driver line-up seems to be continually expanding – Valsecchi is now the team’s third driver, joining current reserve driver Jerome d’Ambrosio, development driver Nicolas Prost and race drivers Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean to bring the number of drivers at the team to five. With testing limited to just 12 days in the pre-season and only some limited straight-line testing during the season, the three non-race drivers are unlikely to spend much time in the E21 that was unveiled yesterday.