Fernando Alonso’s unexpected departure from McLaren at the end of the 2007 season left a vacuum that suddenly required filling. Of all the candidates available, one clearly stood out as the most capable, the most promising and the most likely to dovetail with the team’s incumbent, Lewis Hamilton.
That man was blue-eyed Finn Heikki Kovalainen.
Like Lewis, Heikki had made his grand prix debut at the start of the ’07 season, for Renault. His rookie season hadn’t been quite as stellar as Hamilton’s – few have – but, by the end of the year, a brilliant drive to second in torrential conditions at Fuji showcased the then-25-year-old’s growing assurance and ability.
McLaren snatched up the youngster, and he joined Lewis behind the wheel of MP4-23, the aerodynamic masterpiece that Lewis drove to a memorable championship victory in 2008. Heikki quickly proved the perfect foil – he worked seamlessly with Hamilton, the pair developing an easy-going rapport, and he was instantly quick on track.
Heikki had often looked a contender for victory throughout the early races of 2008, but his day of days came at the Hungaroring in mid-summer. He may have profited from the late-race engine failure of leader Felipe Massa, but this was a deserved and joyously received victory – his only win in F1.
A great team player and down-to-earth character, he remains hugely liked and appreciated by all at McLaren.