It will be a big challenge - Kovalainen

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After a year as the team's test and reserve driver and the departure of Fernando Alonso, Heikki Kovalainen will step up as the ING Renault F1 Team's second race driver. A lot is expected of this young rookie.

Heikki, how are you feeling on the verge of your first season as a Formula 1 driver?

"Excited! And very focused. I have been working all my life to get where I am today, so in one sense there is a feeling that I have achieved something special. But I also know that so far, I have achieved nothing at all. This is the beginning of a new adventure, and I am trying to get as much time in the car as possible to do the best preparation."

How much has your season spent as test driver helped you with that preparation?

"It was a very good year, in terms of helping my understanding of the car, of what you need to be quick in Formula 1, and also for getting to know the team. It means that there will be no nasty surprises when I walk into the paddock for the first time, because everything will be familiar for me. 2006 was also strange, though. I am a racing driver, not a test driver, and it feels good to be going back to what I know best – which is competing against other drivers."

For those people who have not yet seen you race, how would you describe yourself?

"I think I am an aggressive driver, and somebody who never gives up. In GP2 in 2005, my performances showed that no matter what position I was in, I was always prepared to battle and to do the maximum. I understand how the race is unfolding, and I am not afraid to fight wheel to wheel with other drivers. Formula 1 is another step up on the ladder, but I will approach it in the same way. My motto has always been the same as rally driver Markku Alen: maximum attack! I hope I can show that during the 2007 season."

To the outside world, you are also the man replacing a departing world champion. Will that bring added pressure?

"Pressure is always linked to expectation. I am not expecting to get in the car and straight away do the same job as Fernando, and I don’t think the team is expecting that either. I am confident in my ability to do a good job, and Renault is too – that is why they chose me. One of the reasons is that I am always pushing myself to do a better job, always thinking about how I can improve, always putting pressure on myself to go a step further. So I don’t think the situation this year brings more pressure. That was already there in 2006, when I needed to convince Renault that I could do the job. This year is all about delivering on that promise."

Even so, you are stepping into a team that has won consecutive world championships. That means the minimum standard for your performance will be high…

"Yes, of course – we are not going racing in 2007 just to score a few points. I have some good expectations for what we can achieve, but they come from my knowledge of what I can do, and what the team is capable of. From my point of view, this is a fantastic opportunity for a rookie driver. It is very rare that you can begin your career in a car that can fight for race wins. That is a big privilege for me, and something that I need to use effectively."

The question on everybody’s lips will be, can Renault repeat its success from previous seasons?

"I think we need to stay calm, to avoid building up expectations, and wait and see. Between now and the first race, we need to do our job, prepare thoroughly, and do the work in testing. By the time I get to Melbourne, I will have done 12 days in the new car, including the hot weather tests in Bahrain, so I think we will be in a good situation. The other advantage for me will be the Friday test sessions. We will be able to complete as many laps as we want during those two 90 minute sessions, which will really help me learn the circuits. That will be important for getting up to speed quickly, so by Saturday in Melbourne, I hope I am ready to do a good job in my first qualifying session."

What will be your approach for the first race in Melbourne?

"A lot of the approach will be dictated by the competitiveness of the cars, and we will only see that properly after winter testing. As a rookie driver, you can only create problems if you go into your first season talking about winning races, and then you don’t deliver. So I am taking things step by step. I want to qualify well. To make a good start. To get through the first corner cleanly, to complete the first lap in a good position, drive a strong stint, have a trouble-free pit-stop… and hopefully score some points. That would be a good target, because not many drivers can do it in their first race."

Overall, what are your expectations for the new season?

"I know that this will be a season where I have a lot to learn, so the first goal has to be to avoid mistakes. There will some, I am sure, but they need to be kept to a minimum. After that, I need to take advantage of every opportunity that comes my way. To do so, I need the best possible preparation, and the best communication with the engineers. I already have a good understanding with them, and I will have lots of miles in the car. Melbourne will be a big challenge, but it is one that I am excited about!"

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