- Heikki Kovalainen Q&A
Heikki Kovalainen discusses life outside the paddock and the hobbies he'd like more time to pursue in the latest version of Team Lotus Notes
We know that the Team Lotus project is probably your biggest challenge at the moment, but how about other ambitions. Is there anything that stands out on your wish list of 'must-dos'?
For the future, to be honest I haven't thought about it that much. Everything is now targeted at Formula One and I feel, in the last couple of the years, and this year particularly, that I'm in the prime time of my career. I feel that the only target for me is to get a good car, a quick car, hopefully with Team Lotus, and score some good results. That's the only ambition. Everything I do is just aimed at one simple goal: being in the best possible shape I can be on Sunday afternoons.
Really? No desire to go cage diving with sharks? No burning ambition to cross Antarctica by dogsled?
Ha! Not really, no. My career is at the point now where I'm really enjoying what's happening to me. But if you said I had to stop this then I've always been interested in rallying, so I'd like to have a go at that at some point. I think I could very easily have gone to a rally career. It's very popular in Finland and I was very much into it when I was younger. But I know, from my experience here [in F1], that it is very difficult to be competitive at a world-class level in rallying, but it could be even at a lower level, I wouldn't mind that at all.
Did you drive rally cars when you were younger?
A little bit. I know a little bit of what it's all about. The pace notes are the difficult bit; understanding those, and trusting them too. Sure, I can control the car but understanding the pace notes and making the time on a stage when I'd have to, that would be the difficult thing. Then there's the golf. I'm quite into that at the moment and I could quite easily get into it quite a lot more!
What's your current handicap?
It's 9.4. That's OK, but I can't play consistently better than that at the moment. I certainly can play better shots than my handicap says I can, but I can't keep it together over a whole round. The problem is that the amount of practice I get to do is just not enough at the moment.
So, if you had a golfing target would it be to get to 'scratch', a zero handicap?
Yes, the target would be to get to pro level. But to do that I'd need to relocate somewhere, to go to America, to Orlando or somewhere like that - where the entire golf world is based. I'd need to start from there, That's what you have to do if you want to do it properly. You get a coach there and do it every day. But that's a bit of a fantasy!
Having had the discipline to commit to single seaters and realise the ambition of becoming a Formula One driver, do you think that it would be easy to carry that dedication across to golf?
I think I could very easily commit myself to it. Whatever I do I think I dedicate myself to it 100 per cent. I wouldn't want to do one rally here or there and then go to Le Mans, NASCAR or whatever. That wouldn't be the right thing to do, to jump all over the place just for the sake of trying something different. You have to have a serious plan and start from the bottom, making sure you commit to it and then you climb up the ladder.
But I might not be a good enough golfer. I don't know but I would only find out if I put some serious effort into it. For sure I'd never reach a major level, I could never become a PGA Tour player or anything like that but I do think I could reach a good national level in Finland or in Europe, playing hobby championships, which are already very competitive. Maybe I could be a club pro! Ha, ha! Another option is flying. I'm really interested in that and I have a full license to fly helicopters.
Really? How did you get into that?
I had a friend in Finland who was really into flying and he said he would sponsor me to get the license. I was living in Northampton at the time, so I went to Sywell Aerodrome and started to learn there. My friend paid for it, which was very nice! So I got the license. That was back in 2004 or 2003 but I'd love to fly more, have my own aircraft and get into that a bit more. I have a license to fly two types of helicopter, the Robinson 22 and 44, those are the ratings I have. To get ratings for bigger aircraft would just, again, be a case of more time. If I could learn to fly any aircraft, though, I think it would be one of the twin turbine ones like the Agusta Bell 109, one of the big ones. It's quite a cool machine.
What about more down-to-earth machinery. Are there any other cars you'd like to drive?
Not really. I won't hang around in the paddock here when I stop racing. I won't become a commentator or a journalist. That's not interesting to me. I'm just here to race. I enjoy it at the moment, but as soon as I'm not enjoying it I'll be off. I think it's clear that you need to understand when you've reached your limit, when you're not good enough anymore or you're getting too old or not putting enough effort in. I think when I find that I'm not as competitive as the young guys I won't want to hang around. It will happen. That's the way this world is going. The champions are getting younger and younger, because their coaching is better. So when that day arrives, I won't stay here any longer.
But this is the thing you love isn't it? Surely it will be very hard to put it down and walk away?
Oh sure, I think so. But you have to look at Michael [Schumacher]. He's not too old, he's kept himself fit and he's still competitive. I feel that if I'm that motivated then, and as fit as he is, then there's no reason why I couldn't do it when I'm 42 or 43. I'm sure it's possible but you really need to have the dedication and the motivation. If you haven't got those things and you are becoming uncompetitive, well, that's when you should stop.
For me, when I leave, I see myself doing something completely different - maybe rallying, maybe golf, or perhaps flying. But then I will be fully dedicated to that. I will organise my life around that and I will leave this part of my life behind.
We've talked about potential careers away from F1 but what about purely entertaining things? Is there anything you really want to try your hand at just for fun?
It's strange but I don't have things like that. You know, I've seen the world, I've done a lot of things and there's nothing that I feel I must do. I think the things I want now are to one day have a family and to live in a nice place, with good facilities… wherever that is!
Could you see yourself going back to live in Finland?
Oh, that's hard to know. I think the way my life has evolved in the past five to seven years, I've become so international, with the amount of travel we do, that it's hard to stay in one place for a long time. So that's why I see myself still doing a bit of travelling when my Formula One career comes to an end. I struggle to imagine that I'd be living in one house in one country and just staying there all the time.
Do you enjoy the travelling we do?
You have to enjoy travelling. This is Formula One, we travel all the time. If you don't like to travel it just becomes a massive extra stress for you and you probably shouldn't do this as a job. Having said that I'm not sure where I'll live in the future, one of the most important things to me is spending time in Finland every year. It's where my roots are, it's where my family is. When I go there it's always nice to be there.
But surely, because of the F1 season, you only get to go in the winter?
Most of the time, but we went in the summer this year and it's really beautiful. It's really a great country.
When you go back to Finland what is it that you connect with most?
It's the environment. It's the way things are organised in Finland. It's not crowded, it has incredible nature and scenery and there's a lot of space. It's just so quiet and peaceful. People do their own thing and leave other people alone to do theirs. In fact, a lot of the time there's no one around you at all! It's very nice always to go back there. It's too nice to never visit there.
Let's get back to the day job. Do you feel that you and the team have achieved all you wanted to this season?
I think at the beginning of the season we probably set our targets a little too high as the winter testing went a lot better than anyone expected. But then some people brought some fairly major updates and maybe we fell back a little bit. We were a little disappointed but, in fact, we were not yet strong enough as a team. We still need to grow; we need to be more solid.
Next season will be a completely different situation again. Now we do have the foundation to make a car that is actually quick enough to be in the midfield and then update it and keep it competitive.
And I really do enjoy that process. The way that we've grown as a team and the way Tony is growing his business is very encouraging. I enjoy working with Tony a lot. I think I could do something with him in the future. I really like him and maybe we could do something in business. It's an aspect I'd like to learn more about, the business side of things. At the moment I don't understand much of it.
But, you know, I'm really enjoying myself at the team, and I'm also enjoying my time here in the paddock a lot more than in previous years. The years at McLaren… it's a great team but it didn't work out and it became a stress.
Did you find the pressure overwhelming?
No, not the pressure really, more my own stress about it. When things work out and you've tried everything and it just doesn't work then it's best to just stop it, go back to the baseline and start in another direction.
So, do you look at Team Lotus and the things that have happened off track, the partnership with GE, Dell and with others and think, 'yes, this is how a good Formula One team grows, this is working'?
Yes, definitely. I have spoken to Tony about it and I know a little bit about the strategy that he has, and the things he has done with AirAsia, and the way he's doing things here now and it all makes sense. He has a clear plan of how he wants to go at it and I'm sure he will get it working. Well, it's working already, there's a lot of potential and he's building things all the time.