July 26th,2012 (F1plus / Kacj Leslie).- Both Lewis Hamilton and Heikki Kovalainen celebrated their 100th Grand Prix start over the German GP weekend, the Brit and the Finn both made their debuts at the 2007 Australian Grand Prix.
The drivers may have joined the F1 ranks at the same time, but they both took very unique but similar paths to Formula 1 and continued that throughout their F1 racing career, before eventually crossing paths.
Both drivers were born into very different families. Lewis Hamilton was born on January 7 th 1985, into a struggling family in Stevenage. In his early years, times were tough and father Anthony was juggling a number of jobs. Lewis’s family became broken when his parents separated, with Hamilton being the tender age of 2. However, from then on Hamilton stayed very close to his family and his father remarried.
Lewis fell in love with cars through the radio controlled variety, even making an appearance on Blue Peter driving them. In contrast, Kovalainen was born on October 19 th 1981 into a typical, middle class family. He was very close to his parents and names them as big influences in his career.
Typically, like basically all of the current F1 drivers, Lewis and Heikki moved into karts at a very young age. Hamilton moved away from radio controlled cars and was hooked after trying them out. Heikki moved straight into kart racing and both drivers excelled in their respective series raced in. Both won titles, with Hamilton taking the British and European Champion and Heikki taking the Nordic Championship. It was fair to say, both driver’s performances turned heads.
The feeder series career of Formula 1 drivers is pretty similar, with both drivers racing in the Formula Renault UK series. They were so close to crossing paths, with Kovalainen racing in 2001 and Hamilton racing in the 2001 winter series and then a full 2002 campaign. Heikki stayed in the series for 1 year after finishing 4th in the championship. Content with his development, he soon moved up to Formula 3 in 2002. Hamilton, meanwhile, finished the 2002 season in 3rd but unlike Heikki, he stayed for
another year and took the title in style.
Kovalainen moved to the British Formula 3 series in 2002. He caught the eye of Renault and was moved onto the Renault Driver Development Programme. This contrasted heavily with Hamilton’s signing to the Mclaren driver development programme, which Lewis signed while still kart racing. However, both programmes helped fund their racing and keep them in the series. A luxury so few racing drivers ever get.
Whilst Heikki took a full year in British Formula 3, finishing an eventual 3 rd in the championship, Hamilton on tasted the series with 2 races. He failed to finish in both, but moved into the Formula 3 Euroseries for 2004. By 2004, Kovalainen was already in his 2nd year of World Series by Nissan (now Renault) racing. He finished 2nd in 2003, but took the championship in 2004 with 6 wins.
Meanwhile, in another top feeder series, Hamilton was racing to an eventual 5 th in the Euroseries F3 championship. A year later, he took the title. It is interesting to point out; both drivers failed to win the championship in their first year of the 2 respective series and then went on to win the title in their 2nd season. This shows that they both had very good pace but used the first year to learn and then came back stronger and with better knowledge for the 2nd year.
Both drivers also raced in the newly formed GP2 series, with Kovalainen moving to it in 2005 and Hamilton a year later. The main distinction of both their single years in the series is that Kovalainen failed to take the title, while Hamilton did. Both had strong seasons, but Kovalainen was out raced by Nico Rosberg and finished runner up with 5 wins. Hamilton, contrastingly, won the title but still
took an equal 5 wins.
The next step was where their careers contrasted. Kovalainen took a year out of racing in 2006 to become the Renault F1 test driver, clocking up over 28,000km in testing. This valuable track time was something Hamilton did not have. He went straight into a Mclaren race seat, which was an extremely shocking move. It was pretty much unheard of for top teams to enter rookie drivers. However, while Heikki drove like a rookie to 7th in the standings (after a sloppy few races) with 1 podium, Hamilton drove like a matured race to joint 2nd in the standings, with 4 wins and 8 other podiums to his name.
Their paths crossed in 2008 when Kovalainen switched seats with Alonso. This would be the best comparison between the two drivers, with equal machinery. It was also nice to see Hamilton racing against a team mate that he got on with, the two were good friends and still are today. Looking back at that season, the best way to compare the two is through points and wins. Kovalainen was inconsistent and found it difficult to extract the cars potential, leading to 1 lucky win and 53 points.
Hamilton managed 5 wins and 98 points to take the title. Kovalainen may have lost out to his teammate, but he still showed impressive pace. However, Lewis progressed from his debut year to put together a mature and controlled season, something Heikki failed to do.
Kovailanen & Hamilton during the Hungarian 2008, the only career victory for the Finn.
Another year at Mclaren, and another year of Lewis out racing Heikki. Mclaren started the year with a difficult car, meaning both drivers bobbed around in the low and late teens for much of qualifying and the races. However, midseason upgrades moved them up the order. Heikki scored 22 points and finished 12th in the standings, the start of the year hurting his points tally. He failed to finish on the podium due to Mclaren’s use of starting with heavy fuel, leaving him on the back foot. Lewis scored 49 points, made up of 2 wins, 3 other podiums and some consistent scores. However, he was controversially involved in an incident with Jarno Trulli in Australia which caused him to be disqualified as he lied to the stewards.
Here is where the paths split again. Hamilton stuck with Mclaren for 2010, but 2009 Champ Jenson Button moved across from Brawn/Mercedes. This left Heikki without a seat, so he took refuge at the new Lotus Racing squad. It was a controversial move which needed patience and time. Fortunately,
Heikki was the right man for the job. As he went through 2010, 2011 and 2012 without scoring a point and moving from the back of the pack, to midfield, Hamilton had 7 more wins and over 500 more points due to the new points scoring system.
However, not being at the front does not make you less of a driver. You can perform better in a bad car, but finish strongly than you can by going from 2nd on the grid, to 2nd in the race with little overtaking or effort. Moving to Caterham has strengthened Heikki as a driver. He often outperforms the car and has impressed despite being slightly off the radar.
So as both drivers passed their 100th GP over the German GP weekend, both drivers have achieved a lot. Some would argue that Lewis is the better driver, but Heikki is also great too. He may not be fighting for podiums, but he is fighting all the same and his patience, determination and effort is worth more than points or a podium.
Reaching 100 Grand Prix starts is a big achievement for any driver, but especially in this modern day and age where drivers can be dropped midseason or only last 17 races before losing their seat. What’s even more impressive is Hamilton’s loyalty to Mclaren. While Heikki has raced for 3 teams in the 6 seasons of their careers, Lewis is still with the team he made his debut with. Not many drivers can do that, but he has.
Hockenheim, Germany. 20th July 2008. Heikki Kovalainen and Lewis Hamilton (Steve Etherington/LAT Photo)