Q & A with Heikki Kovalainen

AUTOSPORT catches up with Heikki Kovalainen, to hear about McLaren's dismal season and its plans to fix things next year

Q & A with Heikki Kovalainen

Q. It has been a frustrating season for yourself and McLaren. How do you keep your motivation levels up?

Heikki Kovalainen: For me, it doesn't make any difference. I don't know why, but I never have had problem with my motivation. I think if I had, it would be a worrying sign - why am I here at all? I am still trying to do the maximum, and I just want to get back the top.

I want to push the team, and push everybody to achieve a better result. That is how I do it. I don't have to force myself to do it. I do it like always, and try to keep the routines the same. It doesn't really make any difference if I am 14th or 1st.

Q. But the mood must be different heading to races gunning for pole position like last year, or going there just hoping you can get through to Q2?

HK: Yes, of course it is a better feeling if you achieve a pole. But now we can get a better feeling if we achieve the top ten. I still get a feeling when I know I've done a good lap and got the maximum out of the car, I get a good feeling myself. People in the team, they want to get into pole position and maybe people around us don't get the same feeling as the drivers do. But I still get a good feeling when I know that I have maximised everything. If I haven't, I still am disappointed.

Why didn't I do a little bit better instead of being out of the top ten - just to get into the top ten. It is just a different challenge, and you have to just keep driving yourself and keep doing the job like you always do because it is very easy to lose the rhythm and lose the focus, and you go off track - and then it is difficult to recover when the car becomes good.

Q. In the situation you find yourself in, is the fight between team-mates even more important as the main thing you can achieve is beating each other?

HK: In my opinion, no. It doesn't become any more of an issue, or any less of an issue. You always have to compare yourself to your team-mate because it is the fairest comparison you can get - or closest comparison you can get as you are in the same cars.

I always try to compete with Lewis. I always try to go quicker than him, and he always tries to go quicker than me. That is normal. Whether we are 14th and 15th or 1st and 2nd, I don't think it makes any difference. I don't feel that I need to show any more when I am ahead of Lewis, than I had to when I was fighting for the pole position or being right at the top. I still try to do the same.

Q. The team has been struggling to get to grips with understanding exactly what has gone wrong with the car this year. Does that make it more difficult as a driver to set the car up and sort it out?

HK: Yeah, in a way. I think we have been in quite different directions with the set-up of this car, and quite often we end up coming back to where we are now. That sort of makes you think that where we are now is probably about right, and the problem lies somewhere else. Probably the team doesn't know exactly yet how to go from here, but I think we are starting to understand the problems.

We are finding out that it is the downforce that we are lacking, and the consequence of that is that it is the aerodynamic balance and all those things affect it and work together. It just takes time to fix the problem, and you need to take a different kind of concept, a different kind of philosophy. That is why we don't see big steps through the year, because it is not so straightforward.

Q. At the beginning of testing the team didn't really know where you were, as you didn't know how much fuel the others were using or their aero levels. The team realised at the Barcelona test and then set about bringing lots of new parts for the final tests and the first few races - but that pace of progress appears to have tailed off. Do you feel that too?

HK: No, I don't think so. I think it is easier to see the results and the bigger gains initially when you are so far off the pace. We are catching up now but the gaps are quite small - and at every race now we have new parts. I think in Istanbul we had 11 new parts in the car actually, and at Silverstone we had a modified floor and some modified elements on the front wings, plus modified hub cabs on the front wheels.

But it is not any more the half a second in lap time we find - it is just smaller steps. You are talking about 30 milliseconds being a good step. They are small gaps and it is very difficult to see them. When you are optimising your car and fundamentally it is not right, then at some point you are going to hit the limiter aren't you? I think that is what happened initially to us - we were away from the optimisation of this car.

We saw big gains, and now it is flattening out. But it is still important to keep pushing and trying different concepts and different directions, especially with the aerodynamics - the floor, the wings, to understand and make sure that the philosophy of next year's car is correct. It will be different to this year's car.

Q. Is the priority now to get to the bottom of what has gone wrong this year, so the mistake is not repeated next season?

HK: Basically, yes. I think it is very important, and I think the team is doing a very systematic job of actually attacking the problem. I have spent quite a lot of time in the factory now talking to the designers, both myself and Lewis have been there, to talk to designers, and the people who are in change of next year's car already, and we shared our thoughts and views on what we thought the car was doing, and what we thought it needed.

I think that is very crucial and the team is doing very well. We might not see the results instantly, and in some cases we might even see a step backwards as we realise that that was not the right way to go, but I think it is more important to find a good direction for next year while still pushing and optimising this year's car as much as we can.

Q. You've seen McLaren operate to win a world championship, and you are now seeing this operate to try and get out of a hole. How different does the team operate in those circumstances?

HK: For me it is not actually that different. When things go well you still don't see the satisfaction in people - you don't see them relaxing and thinking that everything is good. Everybody is still always criticising everybody, and always you find the area where you can still improve - even last year. Now, it is just the same - it is still quite calm, analysing the problems, looking at the telemetry, looking at the data, and saying, 'okay, this is what is happening. What do we need to do now?'

People are always asking questions, and it is attacking the problem in a similar way. It has surprised me a little bit when I went around the factory, talking to people, how this problem has been dealt with and how this team is attacking this problem.

I think it is the same as it was last year when there were not such big problems, and I didn't realise it or pay that much attention, but now there are more problems I try to be more involved with the team, and see if I can help more and see how the team works. It is more impressive and it just gives me confidence that the team is capable of fixing this problem very quickly and getting back on the game.

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