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Kovalainen steps into Alonso's shoes
Alan Baldwin | March 08, 2007 18:05 IST
Flavio Briatore steered Michael Schumacher and Fernando Alonso to Formula One titles and now the Renault team boss could be on to a winner again with Heikki Kovalainen.
It will take time, with the Finn having plenty to learn when he makes his debut in Melbourne on March 18, but Briatore is confident the 25-year-old from Suomussalmi has what it takes.
"After Fernando, Heikki is the guy I want to have," the Italian told reporters in January at the launch of the car that Renault hope will take them to a third championship in a row this year.
"Sure we believe in Heikki. Heikki's been with us for the last five years. He's not somebody arriving from the moon or from Finland like a tourist. We know him very well and we are very happy.
"Now is the right time for Heikki," added Briatore, who saw Spaniard Alonso win his second title in a row and jump ship to McLaren at the end of last year after serving notice in 2005.
Even if Renault did make overtures to the retiring Schumacher and also looked into the possibility of signing Kovalainen's compatriot Kimi Raikkonen, until it became apparent that he was Ferrari's, Briatore professed no doubts about Kovalainen.
"We monitored him all last year, I think he's ready to jump in the car and win a race," continued the Italian. "Everybody talks about experience, but so many drivers with a lot of experience never won anything."
Only a few months younger than Alonso, Kovalainen is hardly a conventional rookie. He has tens of thousands of test miles under his belt with a title-winning team.
Briatore said the Finn would have been ready as far back as 2002, when he was rookie of the year in British Formula Three and joined Renault as a development driver, but he had fought to hold him back to ensure he entered F1 at the right time.
Last year, when the Finn had opportunities with other teams, the boss made sure the test driver stayed put -- ready to step into Alonso's shoes.
Kovalainen, runner-up in the GP2 support series in 2005 to Williams's current driver Nico Rosberg, says he cannot wait to get racing.
For the moment he is Formula One's 'other' Finn, the rather better known one being Ferrari's likely title challenger and Schumacher's replacement Raikkonen, but he will soon be a familiar face.
"I think I had enough practice last year so I know roughly how to drive the car," he said. "Obviously we want to have a good year but my main focus is the first race.
"I need to try to finish my first race and hopefully score some points, I think that's my personal target and after that we must improve.
"Everyone is in Formula One to win and of course I would want to win a race, but at the moment it is something that is not even worth thinking about."
He is a very different character to Raikkonen -- where the Ferrari ace is taciturn and monosyllabic to reporters, Kovalainen is happy to talk -- but just as competitive.
Driver of the Year in Finland in 2000, he got himself noticed by beating Schumacher and Citroen's world rally champion Sebastien Loeb in the 2004 Race of Champions at the Stade de France in Paris.
If Italian veteran Giancarlo Fisichella thought he would have it easier this season, after two years of being completely overshadowed by Alonso's brilliance, then Kovalainen is out to prove him wrong.
Fisichella will have the advantage of continuity, although Kovalainen knows his way around well enough having tested for Renault for three years now, but at 34 is at a career crossroads.
This season offers him the best chance yet of becoming Italy's first Formula One world champion since the late Alberto Ascari in 1953, and quite possibly his last.
"I think he can deliver, I think he's very talented," former Renault technical director Mike Gascoyne said of the Italian. "Whether he can do it as consistently as someone like Fernando, probably not."
"He definitely has to win half a dozen races this year.
"If not he'll be falling back to the teams down the grid, he won't be getting another top line drive."
Even if Renault's line-up is low key and their level of performance falls short of pre-season pacesetters McLaren and Ferrari in Melbourne, Kovalainen looks very much the face of the future.
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