Heikki Kovalainen Q&A: The last of a dying breed in SUPER GT
Heikki Kovalainen's exit from SUPER GT means the championship will have no active drivers with grand prix experience in 2022. In this Q&A, the Finnish driver looks back on his time in Japan and explains more about his decision to move on.
How does it feel knowing last month's Fuji season finale was your last SUPER GT race?
"Of course, it’s going to be a big change in my life. I was there for seven seasons, so I was there as long as I was racing in Formula 1 [2007-13], a really big part of my career. And SUPER GT seasons have always been long. Straight after New Year, you are getting ready to test; I think this year the first test was on January 19. Then you are testing at least every other week until the first race. That will be very different next year.
"I’ll miss the cars, they are great cars. My friend Mika Salo was at Fuji to watch his son Max race in Formula 4, and he came to the garage to see the car. He hadn’t seen a modern SUPER GT car up close and he was very impressed. And I think they are impressive – they look great, they sound great, and when you’re at the circuit they look f***ing fast! It’s one of the last ‘old school’ cars out there with some proper engine noise, a bit of downforce and good tyres.
"I will miss driving them, but on the other hand, I did seven years there, which is already a long time. And with all the stuff you have to do in SUPER GT, it was getting to a point where it was too much, especially at this stage of my life. I didn’t have the drive anymore to put in the effort that it requires. It’s a tough series with good teams and drivers, and the manufacturers are backing it, so you have to be really committed. In one sense it’s a relief to know I don’t have to do that anymore!
"When I decided to leave in the summer, I had already been thinking about it for a while, especially when we had some tough races earlier in the season. I was thinking, ‘f***, what am I doing here? Is this really the place I want to be?’ After that it was clear. I have no regrets and I am comfortable with my decision."
Perhaps the fact you’d already won the championship in 2016 meant there was less incentive to stay on?
"The championship arrived much sooner than I thought it would, especially after the first season, when I realised that SUPER GT is quite different to Formula 1 and it’s quite difficult. I also knew coming to Japan that SARD wasn’t the number one team within Toyota.
"Many people told me that TOM’S is the team always winning the races and championships and I needed to go there. It hasn’t happened often that any other Toyota team besides TOM’S has won the championship, and that is no coincidence. All the Toyota teams have the same equipment, but certain teams get to test things first, or do more tyre testing – in all these years I never did any tyre testing [editor's note – each manufacturer is only allowed to do in-season tyre testing with one car per tyre manufacturer]. There is a quiet hierarchy behind the scenes.
"I was invited by SARD to test, and when I met the president, [Shin] Kato-san, and Hideki Noda, who was the team manager at the time, I thought they were great people. I had some scars after my last few years in Formula 1, the way things went with Caterham – I was promised a race drive in 2014 and I was informed by text message that they were taking a pay driver instead. I decided before I came to Japan that whatever I do, I wanted to be involved with people I can trust. When I met the SARD people for the first time, I had a good feeling about them and I felt I could trust them.
"That was an important part of my decision to join SUPER GT. And because I knew SARD was not the top team within Toyota I thought it could be an opportunity to turn things around. So the fact we won the championship makes me feel especially good because the team was never expected to do it. In fact, after that I was expecting we could win more, so it’s slightly disappointing that we couldn’t.
"But even though we weren’t getting such good results I was still enjoying working with the team. The first year I signed with Toyota, the contract is all in Japanese and I had to get it translated and go through it. But every other year, they send me the contract, I just checked the numbers and the dates and I just signed it. You can’t do that unless you’re 100 percent comfortable with the people on the other side of the table.
"That was a big part of my decision to stay at SARD and in SUPER GT. Some people asked me why I stayed there when the team was not winning, and I said, ‘look, it’s not just about that. I am enjoying it while I still can! A few years down the road, I won’t be able to do it even if I want to.’ And that’s what I did."
Did you ever seriously consider moving teams, especially once it become clear that winning another title with SARD might be difficult?
"I never considered any other options. I couldn’t see myself driving for another team in SUPER GT. At the point of my career I wasn’t some young guy with a lot to prove who needed to get results. I was in a comfortable position and I was able to continue there as long as they were happy with the job I was doing. But I don’t want to make it sound like I was happy just to be there and take part; we worked hard, we tried a lot of things, we prepared well, it was a professional operation.
"If we had won more races and still won races this year, probably I would still be racing here again next year. That was another contributing factor to the decision. It was not nice this year to not be competitive enough. But I enjoyed every year with the team except perhaps this year, which was a bit less enjoyable, and I have no regrets at all about the results. I’m happy with what we achieved."
Might anything have changed if you didn’t win the title in 2016?
"Perhaps… winning it that early was a surprise and perhaps that took a bit of pressure away from everyone in the team. I like to think even after we won it, we were still putting in the effort needed to maximise what we were capable of, but I can’t prove that! There have been some changes in the personnel over the years, but I feel everyone involved has always tried hard."
Tell us some of your standout memories from your 54 SUPER GT races.
"All the wins were nice, but one stands out in particular – at Sugo [in 2017] I nearly got a heart attack while Kohei [Hirate] was battling [Satoshi] Motoyama-san. Us and the [MOLA] Nissan got a lap on the rest of the field thanks to the safety car and the pit window. We had 15, 20 laps to go and Kohei pulled away by seven or eight seconds, but then his tyres started to go and the GT-R was catching. On the last lap the GT-R was right behind Kohei. It was starting to rain in the final three corners, and Kohei actually went off at SP In, the third-to-last corner, but Motoyama also went off. When they came back on the circuit Kohei was going sideways and they collided… it all looked like it was going wrong, but both cars kept pointing the right way. That was an incredible race and definitely a memorable win.
"The only win with Kamui [Kobayashi] came in Thailand [in 2018]. We didn’t have a super-fast car but it was good enough to get the front and Kamui did a very good job to stay ahead. He had pressure all the way through the second stint. He was only there one year so it was nice to win a race with him.
"Then with [Yuichi] Nakayama, he’s done some pretty good stints. He’s been a great guy to bring it home. The Autopolis race [in 2019] was another great race. I stayed out longer than most and when I came in it started raining heavily and we managed to get on the wet tyres, we did only one tyre change. Bertrand Baguette in the #17 [Honda] was catching us but Nakayama was looking after his tyres really well. He let a 20-second gap come down to about four seconds, but the #17 ran out of tyres.
"Obviously winning the championship in 2016… it was a double-header at Motegi, and I think we scored 37 points out of 42 possible. We had two poles, a win and a second. We had a super-fast car that weekend, and we made the best of it. That was my only pole position in SUPER GT. It was a wet qualifying on Saturday morning, I put it on pole but I could only finish second because one of the GT-Rs [Kondo Racing] didn’t change tyres at the pitstop and they jumped us. I remember also I was stuck behind [Nick] Cassidy in the au TOM’S car for a few laps, and I was thinking, ‘This little bugger should let me go, because I’m fighting for the championship!’
"On the last couple of laps I caught the GT-R but I couldn’t line up a move. I was a bit angry after that race, I went to the Toyota managers and told them we needed help, that they should have told Nick to let me go because I could have won the race. Anyway, the next day, Kohei put it in pole, one of the best qualifying laps I saw him do, and it was a straightforward race at the front. That was a nice memory too."
Is it a surprise that we haven’t seen more guys coming from Formula 1 to race in Japan in recent seasons? Could that change again in the future?
"It’s an interesting point. I don’t have a definite answer, but everywhere in the world, it seems the younger drivers are getting better earlier. Toyota and Honda especially seem to be putting more and more effort into their young driver programmes and they’ve been able to raise the local guys to the standard that they can jump in the GT500. Maybe it’s easier than hiring a foreign driver. And that means there are fewer opportunities than they were five or six years ago.
"I don’t know many foreign drivers are really aware of SUPER GT either. I did follow it a bit before I went there, but I was contacted by SARD – it was that way around. If foreigners put themselves on offer more, it might lead to more opportunities. Now the grid has filled up with young Japanese drivers, it might stay hard for foreigners for some time to come.
"When I told SARD about my decision at Motegi [in early November], they did ask if I had anyone in mind to replace me! I told them that Toyota has many good young Japanese drivers, and the way the SARD team is set up now with Juichi [Wakisaka] and [Takafumi] Kondo running the team, it would be easier for a Japanese driver. All the meetings are in Japanese and it’s hard for a foreign driver to understand everything.
"They did ask me if I had any foreigners in mind, and the only name that came to mind was [Nico] Hulkenberg. But I saw just a few days before that he had turned down an IndyCar drive. I was surprised they even asked me, I assumed they already had a plan in place."
It’s a big commitment for a foreign driver to move to Japan…
"For the first few years I was travelling back and forth [between Europe and Japan], but now with all the testing and simulator work, you really have to be based in Japan. As the years went by, I was staying in Japan for longer periods of time and I was trying to reduce the amount of flights, and then when we had a longer time in between races I went away.
"Since 2018 I was spending probably more than half of the year in Japan, and then the last two seasons [because of the COVID-19 pandemic] I was in Japan from last August until December last year, and then from January until now except two weeks. I felt that was the better way to do it. When I started in SUPER GT, I probably should have travelled less, it was quite tiring. I don’t think it impacted my results but it would have been easier to base myself in Japan. The level of commitment required now means realistically you have to be based there."
Any closing thoughts on leaving SUPER GT?
"I didn’t want to announce it before the season was done. Both Toyota and SARD wanted to announce it before the final race but I asked them not to. The reason was simply that I wanted to avoid any extra hassle, and because we had quite a poor season, I wanted everyone to just focus one final time on getting some kind of result – and that way would be much more enjoyable for me, because I know how it goes in Japan. There are a lot of extra events and ceremonies, and I don’t really like being the centre of attention. I really felt it wasn’t the right thing to do and we should just focus on the race.
"I’m sorry to the fans that feel disappointed about not being able to say goodbye, but it was purely my decision. It was a more fitting end for me. All these years I have been more like the quiet one on the side, just getting on with my job, not trying to make big headlines.
"People sometimes tell me that I’m underrated or people don’t respect my achievements, but it doesn’t bother me. I could make more noise myself if I was desperate for attention, but I’m really not. And I’m really happy Toyota and SARD let me stay at the team so many years. They never pushed me to do more or promote more, they were happy for me to just be the reliable workhorse who always turns up to every race fit and well and who brings the car home.
"It’s more my style, and it was the same in Formula 1. Perhaps if I’d been more of a sparky personality, I would have stayed longer in F1. But I’m totally fine with that. The way it finished in SUPER GT really reflected my style, just a quiet finish, and we had a pretty good result, our joint-best result of the year [fourth]. It was job done and now everyone moves on."
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