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Kovalainen Complains of Number Two Status at McLaren

Heikki Kovalainen - bemoans number two status

Heikki Kovalainen - bemoans number two status

Heikki Kovalainen, who is almost certain to depart the McLaren Formula 1 team at the end of this season, has put all of his potential replacements on notice that they had better be prepared to be relegated to de facto number two status within the team.

As reported in The Telegraph, Kovalainen reiterated a complaint he has made before, namely, that his more celebrated team mate, Lewis Hamilton, routinely receives preferential treatment, with respect to all the new technical upgrades that come downstream.

“It was always difficult to accept that Lewis was always the first to receive the new parts,” Kovalainen said. “I have never wanted to make a big deal about it, but it would have been nice to just once had the new parts on my car, particularly after we lost the chance of winning the championship.”  Initially, his remarks were made to the Finnish newspaper, Helsingen Sanomat, and then picked up by the British press. Apparently his official satements to the English speaking media had been more diplomatic, and once his more candid remarks to his home audience filtered through to the English speaking community, McLaren management were keen for an explanation from the Finnish pilot.

Kovalainen also asserted that his performance relative to Hamilton’s was hampered by the heavier fuel loads he was forced to carry in all the Q3 qualifying sessions he participated in this year.  “Every time this season, when Hamilton and I are in the third part of qualifying, I had to do it with more fuel,” Kovalainen said. “If you take into account the quantities of fuel, I would have had pole position several times.”

While it is difficult to credit Kovalainen’s estimate that the the primary cause for the gap between his slot and Hamilton’s at the upper end of the grid has been a single lap’s worth of fuel, the general thrust of his remarks is entirely credible.  McLaren often take great pains to assert that they do not recognize a pecking order between drivers, and that they have no number one driver, officially or otherwise.  But historically, the facts do not bear this out.  Ron Dennis notoriously had his favorites, Ayrton Senna and Mika Hakkinen among them.  And Lewis Hamilton has always enjoyed “golden boy” status, much to the chagrin double world champion Fernando Alonso when he joined the team in 2007.

The Hamilton-Alonso pairing was notoriously fractious, to the extent that Alonso left the team after a single year into his contract.  To many, Alonso’s premature departure was reminiscent of another botched line-up at McLaren, which resulted in Alain Prost’s sudden exit from the team 17 years earlier, after “the Professor” had decided he could no longer endure his volatile partnership with the supposedly favored Ayrton Senna.  (Prost went so far as to claim that Honda deliberately supplied better engines to Senna.)

Relegation to number two status was a complaint familiar to all of Michael Schumacher’s team mates during his 15 year career at Benetton and Ferrari.  The constant refrain was that Schumi was the primary focus of the team, while the number two was treated as an automatic also-ran.  With Schumacher, one could make the case that if he received preferential treatment, it certainly paid benefits for his teams.  Seven world titles in 15 years is an astounding achievement.  None of his team mates ever came close to consistently matching his performance.   If he was accorded number one status, it was certainly based on merit.

Lewis Hamilton - putative number one at McLaren

Lewis Hamilton - putative number one at McLaren

Ultimately, if a driver joins McLaren and is able to match or better Hamilton’s performance on a consistent basis, the team would have difficulty in justifying a preferential treatment of the 2008 champion.  In fact, as long as the driver pairing weren’t acrimonious, McLaren would likely reap the benefit of having two drivers consistently pushing one another, which could raise their aggregate performance.  Unfortunately, this might not happen.  The drivers currently being mentioned in connection with the second seat at McLaren are Kimi Raikkonen, Jenson Button, Nico Rosberg and Nick Heidfeld.

Raikkonen is probably the quickest of the bunch.  The 2007 world champ is still capable of brilliant performances, but his motivation is often suspect, and he does not have Hamilton’s work ethic.  Moreover, the Finn is playing hard-to-get.

Button, this year’s title-winner, is being touted by the British press as the second half of a McLaren “dream team,” but once suspects the dream might be a bit lopsided.  True, Button is very quick when his car is set up to his liking, but he’s never really brilliant, and more significantly, he never really flatters a bad car, the way truly great drivers do.  (One suspects that, of the current F1 pilots, probably Alonso and Hamilton, and pehaps Vettel, are the drivers most likely to flatter a car that is basically a pig.)  Hamilton would probably try to put him in his place at the outset, and from that point onward, Button would have a “number two” pinned to the back of his coveralls, even if he had a “number one” decal on his car.

Rosberg is something of an unknown quantity.  He has consistently outperformed Kaz Nakajima in the Williams over the past couple of seasons, but no one is really sure (a) how bad Nakjima is, or (b) how good the Williams is.  Hamilton, and his manager/father, Anthony, have not seemed overly happy at the idea of Rosberg’s joining the team, however, so perhaps that gives an indication of how highly they estimate his talents.

Finally, even though Nick Heidfeld keeps reminding everyone that he’s the most underrated driver on the grid, it’s hard to imagine that he would pose a real threat to Hamilton’s dominance.  Unfortunately, at this stage, unless Kimi Raikkonen stops playing hard to get, it might be that Heidfeld proves to be the most likely replacement for the lame duck Heikki Kovalainen.  A pity, if true.  One suspects that the most interesting pairing of those mentioned above would be a Hamilton-Raikkonen match-up.  While Kimi probably wouldn’t provide the same brand of fireworks that Fernando Alonso did, he would be certain to try to prove himself against Hamilton, and it might be just the kind of challenge to keep the indolent Finn well-motivated for an entire season.

Images of Heikki Kovalainen and Lewis Hamilton by Ben Novakovic, licensed through Creative Commons.

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