Paul has been a Formula 1 fan since 1996 and shares his thoughts about the sport through his blog at The Racing Circus.
October 23rd, 2012 (F1plus / Paul Godley).- When McLaren signed Jenson Button in November of 2009, it left Finnish driver Heikki Kovalainen without a race seat for the following season. We didn't have long to wait until we found out where Heikki would be in 2010, as in December it was announced that he'd signed for the newly formed Lotus Racing team that would be making their 'debut' in 2010.
The car was slow almost straight out of the box and struggled for any real competiveness in pre-season testing, but still managed to establish itself as the fastest of the new teams. The best result the team and Kovalainen could muster up was a 12th in Japan, largely down to retirements from front and midfield runners. That 12th place in fact remains the best result achieved by the team in almost 3 years of Formula 1, something that is quite worrying really.
Heikki only failed to finish a race on 5 occasions in the whole of 2010, showing that the reliability of the car wasn't all that bad, especially in the latter part of the season. 2011 was much of the same for the newly named Lotus Racing as the team once again established themselves faster than immediate rivals Marussia Virgin and HRT. Kovalainen again only failed to finish 5 times out of 19, and although the car was a little bit more competitive compared to the midfield, he could only scrape together a season high of 13th. One thing that Heikki was excelling at though, was qualifying. Jarno Trulli was a well known excellent qualifier, a man who could deliver something special on that one important lap. Someone clearly hadn't told that to Heikki as he out-qualified his Italian team mate in 16 of the 18 races Jarno took part in that season.
2012 promised much for Caterham (formerly Lotus Racing/Team Lotus), but has delivered relatively little. The team expanded in size on and off the track, chose to run KERS for the first time and switched the very experienced Trulli for the Vitaly Petrov. These changes though appear to have done little to change the fortunes of the team, as once again they find themselves near the back of the field. Yes Heikki has managed to get into Q2 on several occasions this season, through sheer grit and determination, but that hasn't converted into the races. He's again only managed to get best result of 13th, and after Timo Glock's 12th place in Singapore the team now find themselves behind Marussia and out of the lucrative and very important 10th place in the Constructors standings.
So what should Kovalainen do for 2013? In 54 races (to date) for the team he's achieved a best result of 12th. For a man who's won a race for McLaren and finished multiple times on the podium, is this really where Heikki wants to or should be? It's not through a lack of effort, skill or talent, it's just simply the car is not allowing him to show what he can do.
The significant improvements made from midfield teams like Sauber and Williams this season haven't helped Caterham's progress up the field, but I don't think that can be used as an excuse. You can't control what other teams do, but you can control what you do. There appears, on the surface at least, to be little in the way of progress relative to the other teams ahead of them. To compound this further the recent surge in form from Toro Rosso, who've scored points in 4 of the last 5 races, has seen Caterham fall even further behind and back towards an improving Marussia team. It looks increasingly like Caterham will not score points this season, something that cannot please the team or Heikki.
If you were in his position what would you do? The team gave him a chance to stay in Formula 1 at the end of the 2009 season, and for that you'd safely say he'll be forever grateful. But after 3 years of seemingly 'going nowhere', is it time he left the team? There appears to be very few, if any, places he could move to on the grid, so you'd have to think that if he did leave Caterham he'd have no chance of securing a race seat for 2013. Could that be a good thing though? Could he copy what Nico Hulkenberg did when he signed for Force India and start as the third driver before moving up into the 'first team' the following season? Could he become the Pirelli test driver? Could he leave Formula 1 all together? My opinion: if he can get assurances from the team that the car will be faster and more competitive then he should stay, for one more year at least. If he can't get those assurances or doesn't feel like the car will be good enough, he should leave the team.
Heikki comes across as an extremely likeable, friendly and positive man and driver, but surely even his patience is being tested at times. There's only so long you can carry on going out of qualifying in Q1, starting 19th on the grid and then crossing the line on a Sunday out of the points and a lap or two down, right? There's absolutely no doubt that Kovalainen is good enough to not only be in Formula 1, but to be racing for a midfield team or higher. So I ask again, should Heikki take a 'Heik' from Caterham? I'd also like to take a minute to apologise for the pun in use here, but it kind of had to be done (didn't it?).