Kovalainen begins next stage of rally career

Japan outing is prelude to planned full program in Finland next year for Japanese rally champion and F1 race winner


Rally Japan is, for most of the World Rally Championship drivers, an occasion of last-times. The last rally of the season. The last event before Kalle Rovanperä is entitled to run #1 on his door. The last time Ott Tänak will be piloting a Hyundai i20 N Rally1.

But for another driver, Japan marks a first. Heikki Kovalainen is joining a string of Formula 1 drivers before him that have made the switch to rallying at the top level – though, for now, Rally Japan is a one-off at world level.

It’s no casual bit of fun, though. 2022 has changed all that.

Heikki Kovalainen’s first career was in Formula 1. His second career was in GT racing, representing Toyota in Japan’s domestic Super GT series for many years.

He’s a bona fide rally driver now. He won the Japanese championship this year, taking six wins out of eight starts. And he’s plotting a full-time campaign in the Finnish championship next year.


Rally Japan marks the start of a third career for Kovalainen.

“The rallying passion has always been there but it’s grown quite a lot this year when I’ve been able to do more of it,” Kovalainen tells DirtFish. “That’s the reason why; you’re right, it’s kind of pushing more now than I would have two years ago.

“Two years ago it was just fun to do rallying, one-off rallies here and there just for fun. But now it’s like, yeah, I’d like to drive a bit more and get better at it. I still feel fit and well, so why not? It’s probably like a third stage of my career is starting now. In a way it’s quite exciting as well.”

Kovalainen is driving the same Aicello-prepared Škoda Fabia R5 on Rally Japan that he’s used in the Japanese domestic series this year – a chassis that started life as Esapekka Lappi’s factory machine way back in 2015.


Whatever transpires this week in Aichi, Kovalainen’s next target is clear – build a program to take on the Finnish championship properly. No part-time appearances, no sauntering into the service park and driving just for fun.

A rigorous testing program, doing every round of the Finnish season, in a car capable of fighting at the sharp end. That’s his main aim now. Kovalainen and his family are even relocating back to Finland, having spent the last eight years living in Abu Dhabi.

After that, does the WRC beckon more often for the grand prix winner?

“Well, it depends on the opportunities and possibilities,” he says. “I wouldn’t rule that out but on the other hand, also, I still have a lot to learn on that type of road. I’m not sure I’d want to go there unless I feel ready to do that.

“I feel ready to do the round here in Japan now; I know this type of road and sort of the scene that’s here. I feel confident going there and hopefully not making a total fool out of myself – although that’s a possibility!

If we lose two seconds a kilometer to Suninen and Lindholm, it might be an eye opener Heikki Kovalainen

“If we lose two seconds a kilometer to Teemu [Suninen] and Emil [Lindholm], it might be an eye opener. But I hope it’s not quite that bad.

“I’m not yet thinking too much about world championship events or other big events. Who knows? But at the moment it would be great to get up to speed on that kind of high speed gravel roads first and then see what happens after that.”

He’ll get plenty of that in Finland. Not so much in Japan. One particular rally this year was an eye-opener to just how much Kovalainen needs to adapt and improve before he goes anywhere near a WRC round that’s held on the rough stuff rather than grippy asphalt.

“I had a little bit of a taste when we were in Hokkaido this year; we had the seventh round of JRC there,” Kovalainen explains.

“[It has] higher speed gravel roads and it was actually quite tough for me. That was probably the worst rally that we did this year in terms of pace. We didn’t really have the pace to win there and then I went off as well, so it was quite a big eye-opener.


“That would be an area that I’d need to improve. It’s something that motivates me quite a lot. That’s a reason why I’m looking at opportunities in the Finnish championship, because I’d like to be able to improve.

“And I feel I can improve on those kinds of roads. I don’t know how much I can improve and where the limits are but that would be the next step for me.”

It’s a somewhat different sounding Kovalainen from the one DirtFish last spoke to back in April. Then, he spoke highly of how his Aicello team in Japan was doing all the hard work putting the program together – all he had to do was “arrive here fit and well and be ready for the event,” in his words. His team handled the rest.

Not this time. Kovalainen is now looking for sponsors to back him for the first time since his junior single-seaters career. Building towards his WRC debut this week with a season of rallying in Japan has reignited a fire.

“I think it’s really important also to have passion,” he adds. “I noticed that when the GP career was coming to an end that the passion was probably fading a little bit. That’s really not a good situation, if you’re racing and your heart isn’t 100% there.


“In rallying, it definitely is there. I know I’m getting older and things are getting harder but I’m still fit, well and healthy so I don’t see a reason why I shouldn’t try. That’s the reason why I’m pursuing these ambitions.”

Rally Japan marks a full-circle moment for Kovalainen. He grew up to be a Formula 1 driver – but it wasn’t his first passion.

“I remember watching rallying; the first thing I remember, I was watching the Group B cars in ’84-’85,” he recalls.

“I remember following rallying and it was just pure coincidence that we had a family friend who go-karted. I tried it in a little car park in my hometown and that’s how the circuit racing career started. But it could very easily have been rallying that I would have pursued a career there.

“The passion for rallying has been there before the circuit racing, if you go back long enough. It’s probably coming back to where the heart was, initially.”

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Listen to him talk about rallying and you can tell how strong that passion is. Despite being on completely the wrong time zone to follow Rally New Zealand at a sensible time of day, Kovalainen “was watching it closely, of course,” especially following how fellow circuit racer to rally driver convert Shane van Gisbergen fared.

“I thought, wow, that’s quite impressive,” he says. “I’m not sure we’ll be able to do that well but if we were, that’d be a good target to try and do. He had a great rally; super impressed.

“I know how hard it is switching from circuit racing to rallying and especially in those muddy, tricky conditions in New Zealand; it was really impressive. Hats off to him.”

If all goes to plan, it’ll be him braving the fast gravel roads next year, albeit at national level rather than on the world stage. And while he’s cornered about as fast as a human being can possibly travel during his stint in F1, he’s still in awe of the challenge that lies ahead.

“I’ve watched some of the guys when they’re doing some of the rallies and I mean, it looks insane. The Finnish roads, it looks kind of terrifying when you look at it,” he confesses.

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“But if they can do it, given a bit of time and practice I’m sure I can do it as well. That’s got to be the thinking. Hopefully we can work something out and do something exciting.”

It’s equal parts terrifying and exciting. But ultimately he’s just like the rest of us rally fans – wanting to go out there and emulate the drivers they admired growing up.

Most of us reading this, I’m sure, have one or two onboard videos they always go back to and watch over and over. Petter Solberg traversing Ouninpohja in 2004 on a record-breaking run is my personal vice. Naturally, Heikki has his own, featuring four-time world champion Juha Kankkunen.

“There’s this one video of Kankkunen driving on a wet Rally Finland in the Ford Escort. That’s insane, when you look at that,” he says.

“I can’t remember which stage they were on. But there’s some footage from the outside and then some onboard footage and it’s raining. It looks like a muddy shiny road but he’s just absolutely flat-out. It looks insane. I’ve watched all those onboards and, yeah, it gets your heart-rate going just thinking about it.

“That would be fun to experience one day myself – but still a long way to go there. I’m just trying to focus on the twisty Tarmac roads here in Japan first.”

Yes, good point. It’s important not to get ahead of ourselves here. There’s still his WRC debut to worry about first. But hopefully it’s not his last time either.