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Not unlike many other race car drivers, he became obsessed with the sport through kart racing, which he did as a teenager.
Born in Suomussalmi, Finland, Kovalainen's career began in kart racing, much like that of many other Formula One drivers. He competed in karting from 1991 to 2000, during which time he finished runner-up in the Finnish Formula A championship in 1999 and 2000. In 2000 he won the Nordic championship and the Paris-Bercy Elf Masters event, as well as finished third in the World Formula Super A Championship, leading him to be elected as the Finnish Kart Driver of the Year.
Kovalainen began his car racing career in the British Formula Renault Championship, which fellow Finn Kimi Räikkönen had won in 2000 before moving straight into Formula One with Sauber. Kovalainen's apprenticeship in the junior categories of motor sport was more conventional, but he used Renault power at every step along the way. He finished fourth in the championship with two wins, two pole positions, five podiums and three fastest laps, earning the Rookie of the Year award. He also took part in the Formula Three Macau Grand Prix, where he finished eighth.
Kovalainen attracted the support of the Renault Driver Development programme and in 2002 moved up to the British Formula 3 Championship with Fortec Motorsport who used Renault engines. He became one of the most competitive drivers on the grid by the second half of the season and all five of his wins came in the final nine races. With three pole positions and three fastest laps, Kovalainen finished third overall in the championship behind Robbie Kerr and James Courtney and he was again Rookie of the Year.
Kovalainen moved into the Renault-owned World Series by Nissan in 2003 – but faced a tough teammate at the Gabord team in Franck Montagny. Montagny had already spent two seasons in the World Series and had won the championship in 2001. Montagny won the 2003 title with nine wins to Kovalainen's one.
Kovalainen, Franck Montagny and José María López tested the Renault R23B F1 car at Barcelona in December 2003. Kovalainen also tested for Minardi, but Renault made him second test driver alongside Montagny for 2004.
Kovalainen continued in the series in 2004, but moved to Pons Racing, where he won the championship ahead of Tiago Monteiro, with 192 points and six wins. With Kimi Räikkönen finishing seventh in Formula One and Marcus Grönholm fifth in the World Rally Championship, Kovalainen received the Finnish Driver of the Year award.
Kovalainen competed in the 2004 Race of Champions at the Stade de France in Paris. In the first two rounds he defeated Formula One drivers David Coulthard and Jean Alesi, and then Ferrari Formula One star Michael Schumacher in a Ferrari 360 Modena in the semi-finals. He then beat World Rally Champion Sébastien Loeb in the finals using the Ferrari and a Peugeot 307 WRC car, although Kovalainen had never even sat in a rally car before, to become the first non-rally driver to win the Henri Toivonen Memorial Trophy and earn the title "Champion of Champions". He also participated in the Nations Cup alongside countryman Marcus Grönholm, but they finished in second place after Kovalainen's Ferrari 360 Modena broke down in the finals, losing to the French team of Loeb and Alesi.
In 2005, Kovalainen entered the GP2 Series, the new 'feeder' series for F1 and the successor to Formula 3000. Driving for the Arden International team, Kovalainen began the season with strong results by winning the first round of the championship in Imola and then finishing third in the sprint race. In Barcelona he scored his third consecutive podium, but in the sprint race his car stalled on the grid. He dominated the race in Monaco by claiming pole position, leading the race for the first 21 laps and clocking the fastest lap of the race. Problems during his pitstop, however, dropped him down to fifth. At the Nürburgring he gave his best performance yet, by winning the race from 17th on the grid. In the sprint race José María López caused a collision which forced Kovalainen to retire. At Magny-Cours he won again from fourth on the grid, and came third in the sprint race.
He returned to the Race of Champions in 2005, defeating Bernd Schneider and Felipe Massa, but was then knocked out in the semi-finals by Tom Kristensen. Kovalainen won the Nations Cup with Grönholm in 2006, but was eliminated in the individual event at the semi-final stage by Mattias Ekström by a mere 0.0002 seconds. In 2007, Kovalainen and Grönholm again made the Nations Cup final, where they lost to the German team of Michael Schumacher and Sebastian Vettel. Kovalainen beat Vettel in the individual race, before crashing on the finish line in the next round against Andy Priaulx. He crossed the line out of control, and Priaulx pipped him.
Renault's lead driver Fernando Alonso had signed for McLaren for the 2007 season, and Renault elected to promote Kovalainen in his place, which they confirmed on 6 September 2006. Team boss Flavio Briatore said: "With Kovalainen, I hope to find the anti-Alonso."
At the end of the 2007 season Fernando Alonso returned to Renault, and Kovalainen was left with offers from Toyota and McLaren. On 14 December 2007 it was confirmed that Kovalainen would replace Alonso once again and drive for McLaren Mercedes in 2008, alongside Lewis Hamilton. Kovalainen joined Keke Rosberg, Mika Häkkinen and Kimi Räikkönen as Finnish drivers that have driven for McLaren.
After his first official testing session occurred on 9 January 2008 at Jerez, Kovalainen made his McLaren race début at the Australian Grand Prix, where he was quickest in the first qualifying session and started third on the grid behind Lewis Hamilton and Robert Kubica. He overtook Fernando Alonso on the final lap, but then accidentally hit the pit lane limiter granting fourth place to Alonso, himself finishing fifth, but Kovalainen did set the fastest lap of the race.
It was announced on 14 December 2009, that Kovalainen would drive for Lotus Racing in 2010 along with Jarno Trulli. The team made their debut at the Bahrain Grand Prix on 14 March 2010. The car was off the pace in pre-season testing, due to a lack of downforce caused by the need for a conservative initial design. Kovalainen finished in fifteenth position in the race, two laps down on winner Fernando Alonso.
Kovalainen returned to the event in 2010, where he withdrew after suffering a concussion in a crash after a heat race against Sébastien Loeb.
Kovalainen remained with Lotus in 2011. At the season-opening Australian Grand Prix, he was forced to retire after a water leak, before recording his first finish of the season in Malaysia where he finished 15th, before a 16th-place finish in China. He finished 19th in Turkey and crashed out in Spain, having started from 15th on the grid, outqualifying the Force Indias of Paul di Resta and Adrian Sutil. He finished 14th in Monaco and 19th at the European Grand Prix, with further retirements in Canada and Great Britain. Kovalainen finished 16th at the German Grand Prix, before another retirement due to a water leak in Hungary. Kovalainen then finished each of the next five races, with a best placing of 13th at the Italian Grand Prix. He also finished on the lead lap, in 18th place at the Japanese Grand Prix, and finished ahead of the Saubers of Kamui Kobayashi and Sergio Pérez in Korea, in 14th place. In India, Kovalainen finished 14th again, running as high as tenth place during the race.
After finishing ninth in the Chinese Grand Prix, Kovalainen made a mistake in qualifying in Brazil and was left 17th on the grid. At the start of the race Ralf Schumacher collided with Kovalainen, forcing him to pit. His teammate Fisichella was involved in a collision with Sakon Yamamoto. On lap 36 he felt a vibration at the left rear, and suddenly something on the rear suspension snapped, launching Kovalainen into the barriers. The retirement, possibly caused by damage from the collision with Schumacher, was his first of the season, meaning he lost the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of becoming the first driver to finish all of the races in his first season. At the time, he shared the record for most consecutive finishes from start of career with Tiago Monteiro, both having finished 16 races, until Max Chilton broke the record by finishing his first 25 races in 2013 and 2014.
On 14 November 2013 it was confirmed by the Lotus F1 Team that Kovalainen would stand in for regular driver Kimi Räikkönen as Räikkönen was having back surgery. Kovalainen raced at the United States Grand Prix and the Brazilian Grand Prix. He finished 14th in both races.
In 2014, Kovalainen married his English girlfriend Catherine Hyde, with whom he has been in a relationship since 2002. They live in Coppet, Switzerland.
In 2015, Kovalainen moved to Japan to compete in Super GT (GT500 class) with Lexus. In his first season of Super GT, he drove the Lexus RC F GT500 for SARD with Kohei Hirate. The following year Kovalainen and Hirate won the Super GT championship: after going into the season's closing double header at Twin Ring Motegi in fourth place in the standings, they qualified on pole and led most of the first of the two races before dropping down to second, subsequently taking their only win of the season in the final round to clinch the title. The championship win was Kovalainen's first since winning the Nissan World Series in 2004.
In August 2020, F1, in partnership with Amazon Web Services and machine learning, ranked Kovalainen as the 8th fastest Formula One driver in qualifying from 1983 to 2020. This was from a partnership with AWS (Amazon Web Services), who used an algorithm of the performance of every driver compared to their teammates to determine the fastest drivers in F1 qualifying sessions.
Currently, Heikki Kovalainen is 39 years old. Heikki Kovalainen will celebrate 40th birthday on Tuesday, October 19, 2021.
Find out about Heikki Kovalainen birthday activities in timeline view here.