In the first of a new series of articles RaceDepartment take a look at what a number of Former Grand Prix drivers have been up to since leaving Formula One. This week we check up on Heikki Kovalainen. Kovalainen was long seen as the coming man of junior motorsports when the unflappable Finn burst on to the circuit scene ahead of the 2001 racing season. With a number of victories under his belt during an early karting career including littered with trophies, his early career highlights include overall honours in his homeland Nordic series, twice runner up in the Finnish Formula A championship, a Paris-Bercy Elf Masters title and a third place result in the incredibly competitive World Formula Super A Championship alongside a raft of race victories and accolades, Kovalainen was destined to scale his way to the top of the racing ladder from a very early age. Despite his Finnish background and the national reputation for monosyllabic conversation and dry wit (think Räikkönen, Hakkinen, Bottas etc) Kovalainen breaks the mould somewhat with a warm personality and tendency to lean towards the jokey and relaxed side of life when at the worlds racing circuits. Coupled with his incredible turn of pace and resistance to pressures both outside and inside the cockpit, Kovalainen soon came to the attention of the Renault Formula One outfit. With Renault support helping Kovalainen during his early career that he would very quickly make his Formula One testing debut at the wheel of a 2003 Renault Grand Prix car, earning the second reserve role alongside Frenchman Frank Montagny for the 2004 racing season. After a couple of years learning the ropes behind the scenes at Renault Kovalainen found himself promoted to the main reserve role for 2006, clocking up an intense number of laps and earning the right to drive alongside veteran Italian Giancarlo Fisichella in place of outgoing World Champion Fernando Alonso for 2007. Kovalainen had a somewhat stop start season during his debut in 2007, hindered somewhat by a team slowly beginning it's slide into decline following several years of success with a young Alonso behind the wheel of the Renault machines. Despite an obviously disappointing car Kovalainen performed admirably against the talented if inconsistent Fisichella, generally out performing his team mate and securing himself a podium trophy for second place at the Japanese Grand Prix and ending the season with 30 World Championship points, 9 more than his teammate and one place in front of the Italian at seasons end with seventh in the overall championship standings. With such an assured performance from Kovalainen throughout the season, especially towards the end of the year as the team further resolved some of the handling inconsistencies that plagued early rounds of the year resulting in Kovalainen securing eight consecutive points scoring finishes from Silverstone onwards, Kovalainen found himself in demand throughout the paddock, eventually ending up at the British McLaren team in place of outgoing driver Fernando Alonso, who returned to the Renault squad he left behind giving Kovalainen his big break in the first place..... ironic. Unfortunately for Heikki 2008 and 2009 were to prove something of a disaster for the driver. Teamed with a young Lewis Hamilton on the verge of securing his ever rising star in Formula One, Kovalainen would struggle greatly in the silver cars and rarely proved a match for his British teammate. With his confidence destroyed against such still competition, and with McLaren keen to focus more attention on the team number 1 after the disaster that was the Alonso / Hamilton combination the previous season, Kovalainen never really stood a realistic chance of proving his worth during his two seasons driving for the Woking outfit. With Hamilton riding the crest of a wave that swept the Englishman to his first championship in 2008, Kovalainen provided useful support for the team and still managed to rack up a decent hatful of points, including his one and only Formula One victory, on the way to again finishing seventh in the final standings, however unlike the previous year Kovalainen would not fair well against his team mate in the final scores ending the year a massive 45 points in arrears to the new World Champion. Despite the new found tendencies to crash his car at pivotal moments of a race, or to find himself invisible for long periods whilst other drivers found themselves in the spotlight, much to his relief Kovalainen was retained by the team for a second season and hopes remained high that the driver would rekindle some of the form seen during his early years in the sport. Sadly 2009 was even more difficult for the Finn as McLaren by their own admission built a hugely disappointing car for the new season. Even with the driving talents of reigning World Champion Lewis Hamilton only able to win two races over the course of the 17 race season. Kovalainen managed just a miserly 22 points on route to 13th in the overall standings, with a season highlight of fourth place in Spain doing little to lighten to mood on the Finnish side of the garage. Suffice to say Kovalainen would find himself out of work at the end of the year as McLaren opted for the services of new World Champion Jenson Button, instead signing up to drive for the brand new Team Lotus operation run by Air Asia founder Tony Fernandes. In another episode of bad luck striking, the Team Lotus squad never quite lived up to expectations originally anticipated by the team when they agreed to sign up for the new season under the proposed cost cap regulations by then FIA President Max Mosley. For the three years the Finnish driver took part in Grand Prix racing for the Team Lotus / Lotus / Caterham squad success was always too far off in the distance, with very little to show for the effort put in from all concerned. With results well away from a points paying position, Kova did at least partly rebuild his reputation regularly out performing his machinery and a sting of experienced teammates. Sadly 2013 brought the need for the now struggling team increase the amount of money coming into the outfit and for those financial reasons the Finn found himself side-lined and demoted to the role of test driver. The move to drop Kovalainen was at the time highlighted as nothing to do with the on track performances of the driver, but more a need to bring in much needed funding for a team already showing signs of cracking under the strain of modern Formula One racing. Kovalainen was to receive one final reprieve in race conditions when he was called up by Lotus (the other Lotus - confusing wasn't it?) to deputise for the injured Kimi Räikkönen, finishing an unimpressive 14th at both the United States and Brazilian Grand Prix. Those two drives would be the final time Formula One would see the likeable Finnish racer out on circuit as Kovalainen stepped away from open wheel competition in an attempt to resurrect a career finding itself somewhat stalled. Formula One Career Statistics Starts: 111 Wins: 1 Poles: 1 Podiums: 4 Fastest Laps: 2 Teams: Renault, McLaren, Team Lotus, Caterham, Lotus Career Highlights 2002 British Formula Three - 3rd 2002 Macau Grand Prix - 2nd 2003 World Series by Nissan - 2nd 2004 World Series by Nissan - Champion 2004 Race of Champions - Champion of Champions 2005 GP2 Series - 2nd 2016 Super GT - Champion So what happened next, and where is Kovalainen now? Following the conclusion of Heikki Kovalainen’s Formula One racing activity at the end the 2013 season the Finnish driver found himself in somewhat of a difficult career position. With his perceived stock having fallen considerably in light of the ill-advised Lotus stand in drive that unsurprisingly failed to deliver any meaningful performances, Kovalainen spent the next 12 months trying his hand at a number of different racing disciplines, probably the most high profile of which was a test for the BMW Motorsport DTM team with a view to making the transition to the high downforce touring car series for the 2014 season. Although no times were officially released by either team or driver it was though Kovalainen performed admirably for a driver making his competitive tin top debut, however with BMW suffering an embarrassment of riches in terms of driving talent under the manufacturer umbrella no race seat was made available for Kovalainen and the Finn found himself looking elsewhere for a drive the following season. Having had a taste of running closed cockpit racing cars Kovalainen then followed a path often trodden by professional drivers looking to continue a paid career and crossed over to the land of the rising sun, securing himself a drive in the prestigious all Japanese Super GT Series. Initially signed on a one year contract to drive the Team SARD Lexus entry, Kovalainen has stepped up to the mark with great style and adapted to his new environment almost immediately. Season one saw a period of acclimatization to the culture and discipline required to race high performance GT machines, but nevertheless Kovalainen performed strongly in the Lexus RCF GT500 and regularly showed flashes of pace albeit often marred by both driver and team error. At the close of 2015 Kovalainen secured a new two year extension to his Japanese adventure and would once again partner teammate Kohei Hirate for team SARD, this time maximizing his and the teams experience to secure a last minute championship victory with a win at the season ending Motegi race, enough to combine with the previously secured points and three other podium finishes during the eight round season to wrap up a first drivers championship title since winning the Nissan World Series all the way back in 2004. Kovalainen has since made a strong reputation for himself in Japan and is seen as one of the most respected drivers in the championship now awash with European racing talent. With two races down in the current campaign Kovalainen and Hirate sit in fourth position in the championship standings, with a trophy apiece curtesy of the third place result at the season opening Okayama GT 300km. At 35 years of age Kovalainen looks like he has finally found a resurgence in form for a career that promised so much during his time in the lower formulee in Europe. If the likeable Finn continues to perform as he has in the previous two years then it looks like a long and promising career lays ahead of a driver who once stood atop the podium in Formula One. For more news on Formula One and the big wide world of motorsports then check out our Motorsports Sub Forum here at RaceDepartment and join in with the community discussion. Motorsport is amazing folks, share the love! Did you enjoy our first article in the new series? Do you think Kovalainen deserved more success than he achieved in F1? Let us know in the comments section below!