Kovalainen clinches Nations' Cup for Finland

Kovalainen clinches Nations' Cup for Finland

Heikki Kovalainen was the Champion of Champions in 2004, and he showed the same form in this year's Nations' Cup, the first event in the Race of Champions, being held at the Stade de France in Paris. Nations Cup winners Heikki...

Heikki Kovalainen was the Champion of Champions in 2004, and he showed the same form in this year's Nations' Cup, the first event in the Race of Champions, being held at the Stade de France in Paris.

Nations Cup winners Heikki Kovalainen and Marcus Gronholm celebrate.
Photo by xpb.cc.
Kovalainen, who will be starting his Formula One career with Renault in 2007, won all six of his races, in spite of missing Friday's practice sessions, leading Finland to a victory in the rain-soaked event. His teammate in the Nations' Cup was Marcus Gronholm, a two-time World Rally champion.

"Marcus and I have been trying to win the ROC-Nations Cup since we first formed a team together in 2004," Kovalainen explained. "We were determined to do it this year and now we've succeeded."

The Finns took the title with a victory over a short-staffed Team USA in the finals: Travis Pastrana had been slated to drive first with NASCAR Nextel Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, and then with Formula One driver Scott Speed, but both suffered injuries, leaving Pastrana the sole driver for the team.

Pastrana, a highly successful motocross and freestyle rider, had his first taste of a rally car at the 2003 Race of Champions, and last year moved full-time from two wheels to four, winning the 2006 Rally America championship in only his second year in the sport.

Pastrana had made the finals with a string of impressive victories over both race and rally drivers, with victories over German DTM ace Bernd Schneider, 1995 WRC champion Colin McRae and Formula One veteran David Coulthard.

"Hey, the way I'm feeling, you could come up with a million reasons why I've had such a good run," the happy Pastrana exclaimed. "I don't care. I mean in what world do you have to do to beat guys like David Coulthard? I love this world, and I want to stay in it."

Mistakes aside -- and in the Race of Champions, smallest mistakes can prove costly -- Pastrana particularly impressed in the third-heat win over Coulthard in the semifinal, beating the Scot by 0.495 seconds in the buggies.

In the finals, though, Kovalainen proved to be too much for Pastrana, with the Renault F1 driver taking the lead in the Meganes in the first heat, forcing Pastrana to push a little too hard and spin off. Kovalainen easily took the heat by a 30-second margin.

Final: Travis Pastrana.
Photo by xpb.cc.
Pastrana didn't throw in the towel, though, and he looked to be in the game when Gronholm stalled his Xsara at the start line in the rally heat, but then Pastrana clipped the barriers, letting Gronholm back in the game. It was close, but on the final lap it was Gronholm in the barriers, and the American took the win by some three seconds.

The final heat, again in buggies, saw Kovalainen drive a flawless race and take the win -- and the Nations' Cup -- by some 3.4 seconds.

"All credit to Travis," Kovalainen said. "He drove really well and I had to push as hard as I could to beat him in our two heats together in the final."

It had been much the same for the Finnish team earlier: they had first beaten off the challenge from Team Scandinavia, with Kovalainen outdriving Le Mans legend Tom Kristensen first in Porsche 911 GT3s, and again in buggies, avenging his 2005 Nations' Cup loss to the Dane. Meanwhile, Mattias Ekstrom took a singular win for Scandinavia.

The Finland-France semifinal had been anticipated as the battle of giants, with Kovalainen facing off with the three-time Champ Car champion Sebastien Bourdais, and Gronholm taking on archrival and three-time WRC champion Sebastien Loeb.

Kovalainen set the scene with another flawless drive in the Meganes, while Bourdais spun off into a sand trap; the Finn took the heat win by a margin of nearly 30 seconds. Gronholm could not clinch the final spot for Finland, though, as Loeb took the nail-biter second heat with a slim 1.8-second edge.

"It's really Team Heikki -- not Team Finland -- that has won this," Gronholm admitted. "It's the first time I've been awarded a cup after not winning anything! But hey, maybe this means my luck is turning and I will start winning from here."

Semi final: S?bastien Bourdais.
Photo by xpb.cc.
With Kovalainen and Bourdais selected as the drivers for the third heat, in the ROC buggies, the young Finn took another calm and collected victory, clinching the heat and the finals berth with a 1.8-second victory over Bourdais.

"I lost a lot of time on the first lap," Bourdais explained. "I really didn't have much grip at all. (...) Sure I'm disappointed but that's the way it is. (It's an event where you really have to adapt very quickly to new cars."

It was the second Nations' Cup victory for Finland, who also took the inaugural title in the event in 1999, with Tommi Makinen and JJ Lehto leading the charge. Finland and France are now tied for all-time Nations' Cup wins with two apiece.

The individual competition, for the title of Champion of Champions, starts at 7 PM local time.

See also: Ekstrom takes Race of Champions victory

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