Why Kovalainen is already so good at rallying

The former Formula 1 driver speaks exclusively to DirtFish about his rallying exploits and future ambitions


Two wins from two, winning every stage. This, surely, is the form of a champion in the making, or someone at the apex of their career.

Not this time. The rally driver putting up big numbers in Japan right now is not a rally driver by trade.

One-time Formula 1 grand prix winner Heikki Kovalainen has retired from circuit racing. Now he’s chasing a childhood dream to be a rally driver.

“I started following rallying before Formula 1,” Kovalainen tells DirtFish. “I remember some faint memories from 1985-86, the World Rally Championship and the Peugeots and the Audis. I remember watching the Finnish guys. Those are the first memories of motorsport for me.”

1985 1000 Lakes Rallyeworld wide copyright: McKlein

He ended up becoming a circuit racer instead of a rally driver by “luck” – he started go-karting at age six and went upwards to F1 from there.

But that chapter of Kovalainen’s career is written. The ink has dried. Whichever pages remain to be penned will be in rallying. The question is – how many pages is he planning to add?

“I’m 100% focused on rallying now,” he says. “I enjoy watching WRC; I stay up all night and day watching the WRC Live nowadays!”

It’s no wonder. Rallying was a useful escape during a difficult period of his circuit racing career. His SARD team in Super GT struggled to stay competitive. “We weren’t really going forwards and I kind of felt like my motivation was also going down. That’s not good for anyone,” Kovalainen rightly points out.

Going off to rallies in the Japanese championship in a Toyota GT86, a rear-wheel-drive car that sits at the second level of national rallying, was a very useful distraction from the on-track struggles. “When I had this opportunity to do the rallies in Japan, I was always excited.”

It’s little surprise then that Kovalainen is already set for a WRC debut at the season-ending Rally Japan. But what might be surprising is how prepared he appears to be.

His pacenote system mimicks what Richard Burns and Robert Reid had back in the day with its easy lefts and medium rights, minus some of the specific corner details. WRC will be a step up, undoubtedly. But based on how his season has started, he’s already due a bigger challenge.

“It’s obviously a surprise that we’re so competitive. I didn’t expect to be winning straight away,” he says.

“We only had two days of testing on a small circuit. We didn’t even get to test on a proper stage, so it was like a shakedown that we did with the car. Then it was really the Shinshiro Rally that was our first proper stage that we had a feeling for the car. It started much better than we thought it would.

“My feeling is that it’s just going to get better because I can still feel and see many issues in my driving, pacenotes and even some car settings. Take nothing away from the guys in Japan; I don’t know if our car is just much more competitive than the cars they’re running. It’s been a surprisingly good start.”


That car is a Škoda Fabia R5 – not a Rally2 evo. This is an OG-Fabia. Chassis number five, Esapekka Lappi’s factory ride way back in 2015.

With this being Kovalainen’s first venture into four-wheel-drive rallying, he needed some advice from someone who’d been there and done that. So, naturally, he called the driver who knew his car best: Esapekka himself.

The influence is clear. There’s a hand-movement exercise Lappi does in the seconds leading up to a stage start: hands clasped together, pivoting them in a circle on the wrists. Kovalainen’s doing it too.

But there’s more to it than just the odd surface-level advice. After all, Lappi won WRC2 events in this exact car. Kovalainen’s tapping into that intimate knowledge of the car he now calls his own as far as he can.


“I know that the balance that we have at the moment with the car is wrong. It’s very poor on front-end grip and for the next round, we’ve got some new parts to try. Some of the differential settings in the car have been quite wrong – I’ve spoken about this with Lappi as well, asking some advice, what to do, where to go [on setup].”

Will he be competitive on his WRC2 debut later this year? It’s hard to tell. His car probably won’t be a match for the cream of the crop in the series, should they choose to visit Japan. But he does have an experience advantage – he’s done the Central Rally twice before, the new host event for Japan’s returning WRC round.

Being competitive, despite not being a rally lifer, clearly matters to him. While the GT86 may have been some good fun away from the day job in Super GT, Kovalainen’s not content to simply make up the numbers and have fun now he’s stepped up to RC2 level.

I've never done them but I'd be really up for it to try and see how it feels – I'd guess quite different Heikki Kovalainen on the potential of doing Rally Finland

If anything, he’s torn. He’s done asphalt events for the most part so far and his gravel experience is low – something he wants to change. Despite that inexperience, he goes on to mention the very thing Finnish fans were probably waiting to hear.

“It’d be really cool to do some stuff in Finland as well,” Kovalainen says. “Finland has got some extremely high-speed gravel roads as well. I’ve never done them but I’d be really up for it to try and see how it feels – I’d guess quite different!”

Now there’s a thought. Heikki Kovalainen on the entry list for Rally Finland. The interest is there. But there’s a concern.

“Rally Finland would be real fun to do one day. But also I’m worried that it might be almost embarrassing because it’s probably going to be very hard in terms of trying to be competitive there.

“I probably need a few more goes at it and driving a bit more on those sorts of roads. People might be disappointed at how it went. But it would be really fun to do one day.”


Finland may have to wait. Rally Hokkaido in September is set to be his first gravel rally in a four-wheel-drive car – on roads that bear zero resemblance to his homeland.

But that concern is itself is a sign of how Kovalainen is approaching his rallying. This is no Freddy Loix-style jolly – turn up with no testing, do the recce and don’t bother worrying about the result, as the former Mitsubishi and Peugeot factory driver did on the Monte Carlo Rally this year.

Kovalainen might have retired from racing but his racing driver brain hasn’t been switched off. Shinshiro Rally is a case in point. As he crossed the finish line of the final stage to take his first JRC overall win, can you guess his immediate reaction?

Balance was off, too much understeer.


This isn’t an attempt to follow in the footsteps of fellow F1 alumni Kimi Räikkönen and Robert Kubica – a full-time WRC program isn’t on the agenda. But Kovalainen’s results in Japan so far show that it’s time to look elsewhere if he wants to push himself further.

“I know I would have a lot of work to do, I’d have to improve in many areas, if I wanted to go to another level and take the next step, maybe going somewhere in the European events. Even WRC2, the world championship events, I would have a lot of work to do there and a lot of learning to do.

“On the other hand, if I had an opportunity to drive a bit more and test a bit more, sort of get a bit more learning on the pacenotes, I feel that I could probably reach a reasonable level. I’m quite confident of that.


“I’ve always felt comfortable in a rally car. I won the Race of Champions 18 years ago, beating Sébastien Loeb in a Peugeot 307 WRC in the final, just out of nowhere. I’ve never been afraid of a rally car and never been afraid of the different grip levels, the car moving, and all that, so always felt comfortable. I have a lot of passion, a lot of motivation for that.

“But on the other hand it’s very hard for me to tell some sponsors or investors that you should support me because I’m not a young and up-and-coming driver, and that we’ll go out and win the world championship. Because that’s probably not realistic!

“I’m also not really interested in starting to work on a budget and trying to put a package together. That part of my career is probably behind me. At the moment in Japan, the Aicello guys are taking care of all of that and I don’t really have to do anything other than focus on driving and that’s a good position to be in.


“It’s hard to say what the future will hold. I’d like to do more but I know it won’t be easy. I definitely won’t target becoming a World Rally champion because I know that’s not realistic. Time has passed for that.”

World champion, no. Japanese champion? If he can keep up his momentum on this weekend’s Kumakogen Rally with a third win in a row, it’ll start looking very likely indeed. And if Kovalainen ticks off that achievement in year one, surely it’s a question of when, not if, we see him tearing up the streets of Harju and sending it through the Kakaristo junction.

Words:Alasdair Lindsay