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Last Updated: Tuesday, 15 May 2007, 12:45 GMT 13:45 UK
Heikki Kovalainen column
Heikki Kovalainen column
By Heikki Kovalainen
Renault F1 driver

The Spanish Grand Prix was the best race of my short Formula One career - and Renault's most competitive this season.

So this is a good time to give you an insight into what a driver goes through during a race.

PREPARATION

I have my lunch three hours before the race starts, normally around 11am, and from then on I sip a fitness drink my trainer mixes me.

I never ask what's in it, and it varies from race to race depending on the requirements, but there'll be a mixture of certain things - electrolytes, carbohydrate, salts, potassium, that sort of stuff.

Heikki Kovalainen on the grid before the Spanish Grand Prix
I put my helmet on 10-15 minutes before the start of the race and start to think about what might happen

As the race gets closer, I have a little bit of a physio, we do a warm-up for the neck and the upper body, and some stretching. Then 15 minutes before I must drive out of the garage I get changed, put my race kit on, and have a quick run through with my engineers on the plan for the race.

At 1.30pm, half an hour before the race starts, the pit lane opens. I do a practice start at the end of the pit lane and then head off for the grid.

If I'm not in the top 10, we can put more fuel in to give us a better strategy and I might do a couple of reconnaissance laps to get a feel for the car.

But in Barcelona on Sunday I qualified eighth, and if you're in the top 10 you're not allowed to refuel, so I went as slowly as possible around the lap and coasted in to my grid position because we wanted to save as much fuel as possible to be in the best position for the race.

I get out of the car again, and head back to the motorhome to cool down a little bit, have a few more sips of the energy drink and go to the loo for the last time.

I'm not really thinking about the race at this point, but I am getting into some kind of race mode.

THE START

I put my helmet on 10-15 minutes before the start of the race, get into the car and just wait for the time to count down, thinking a little bit about the start - maybe try to create a couple of different scenarios about what might happen.

You can't plan it, and you need to be open-minded because things happen fast, but you might think which cars you might be able to overtake, or which ones behind are likely to have a fast start and could be trying to pass you.

Heikki Kovalainen leads Nico Rosberg's Williams during the Spanish Grand Prix
The actual driving, keeping the car on the road, is all natural, all automatic - what I'm thinking about is where to make time

We always do a practice start when we set off on the warm-up lap. My engineer watches the computer read-outs in the pits, and if everything is fine he tells me to keep the same settings, and if not - if there's too much wheelspin or the revs go too low - he tells me what to change.

I warm up the tyres and brakes in the second part of the warm-up lap to get them closer to the right temperature, and then I just stop on the grid and wait for the lights.

Five lights go on one after the other, and we start when they go out. When the first couple of lights go on, I select first gear and put the revs at the right level. By that time, three or four lights are on and I just wait.

I'm not nervous at all - well, maybe a little bit. But that's normal. I never panic. I'm always well in control. I don't rush.

When the lights go out, I don't really feel the adrenaline. I just try to react to what's happening in front of me, and if I see a gap I try to go there and make some places. If there is some trouble, I try to avoid it.

Even if you have a near-miss, you're not nervous. It's happened so many times in our careers, we are used to it.

Afterwards, you might think: "OK, that was pretty close." But at that moment, if someone's coming back on to the track and he's close to you, you're just trying to avoid him, and if you do then just put your head down, and smile a little bit because you've made one place.

THE RACE

After you've got through the first corner, you get into a rhythm. If someone is behind you, try to defend, make sure no-one overtakes you; if someone's holding you up, try to overtake them or push them into a mistake.

The actual driving, keeping the car on the road, is all natural, all automatic - at least for me.

Heikki Kovalainen's Renault during the Spainsh Grand Prix
Even if the race is not very eventful, there is never a moment when I am thinking about anything else - it is very important your mind doesn't wander

What I'm thinking about is not where to brake or whatever. It's where is this car slower than me, where is the best place to overtake.

Sometimes you get information from the engineers, asking you to try to overtake someone, or not let the guy behind you past.

We don't talk much, but a couple of laps before the pit stop they ask me how the car is feeling.

They try to talk to me on the straight, but if it's in a corner - even a fast one - it's not a problem, even though I'm on the limit. It's not a distraction at all.

I can hear them wherever I am on the circuit, but the engine is very loud so they can't hear me unless the revs are low. So I have to wait until I'm in a slow corner to tell them whether I want any changes made to the car in the pit stop if it's not working for me.

Sometimes, they come on the radio with bad news. On Sunday, after my first pit stop, they said: "OK, you're target minus 10 laps". That means I had to make my next stop 10 laps earlier than planned - because we had a refuelling problem.

The problem put me out of sync with the others. I had less fuel on board, so the car was fast, and I caught David Coulthard's Red Bull quickly.

I had a bit of a go once, but I didn't have enough straight line speed to make the move stick, so I had to wait for the next call to come into the pits again, and hope he made a mistake.

During a race, there is no time to take a breather

You start to think about the pit stop, making sure you get the best entry into the pit lane, and maybe you can overtake him in the pits.

There is a speed limit in the pits, and as you come up to the line where it starts, you have to brake as late as possible but still make sure you are under the limit - but not too much - then press the limiter button on the steering wheel and get back up to the limit straight away.

Even if the race is not very eventful, there is never a moment when I am thinking about anything else. Everyday life just doesn't enter my head.

I am totally focused on the race. It's very important that your mind doesn't start to wander. I'm sure you'd lose lap time if you did that.

THE PHYSICAL SIDE

Spain was not a particularly tough race, but some are, like Malaysia.

It's so hot and humid, it's uncomfortable all the time. You get sweat pouring down into your eyes. Sometimes you have to open your visor a little bit on the straight, or put your hand up through the bottom of your helmet, to wipe your eyes.

Heikki Kovalainen
On Sunday, it was a good feeling after the race - I felt I had done the maximum I could

Physically you start to get tired. You start to lose your power, and concentration is really on the limit.

But it's important to try to put that to one side and dig deeper and deeper. Even then, I always feel totally in control - but sometimes it takes a lot more effort to do that.

During a race, there is no time to take a breather. But I'm reasonably relaxed in the car all the time.

Even when I'm really pushing, my knuckles are not white on the steering wheel, it's just all the senses are really sharp to react in case I have a moment. You can't be tense for an hour and a half.

POST-RACE

At the end of the race, sometimes I'm happier than others, depending on the result.

On the slowing down lap, I might think about what was good or bad in the race, where I made a mistake.

I have to go really slowly so as not to waste fuel, because the car is weighed at the end of the race, and we run it as close to the minimum weight limit as possible.

I'm glad to get out of the car at the end of the race - it's a big effort to do an F1 race

I have a few words with the engineers on the radio. They tell me the result straightaway. The team can hear me, so I thank everybody for their hard work.

I'm glad to get out of the car at the end of the race - it's a big effort to do an F1 race. Mentally you're pretty tired, although in Spain physically I could have done another race if I'd had to - and I didn't even have a drinks bottle in the car because it saves some weight.

We worked it out that not having it would save us four seconds over the race distance, so I decided not to bother.

But in somewhere like Malaysia, I would lose more than four seconds if I couldn't drink. Physically I wouldn't be able to keep it together because I'd dehydrate too much, and if you dehydrate, no matter how well prepared physically you are, your body just can't do it.

When I get out of the car, I'm weighed by the officials - I only lost half a kilo on Sunday when in races like Malaysia it can be up to three - then my physio is there with a drink, and there are some media to talk to.

Heikki Kovalainen in his Renault during the Spanish Grand Prix
The Renault was much more competitive in Spain
I get changed - sometimes have a shower, sometimes not. On Sunday I didn't bother because I wasn't that sweaty. And then we have to do a post-race debrief with the engineers, which can take up to an hour.

Even if it's been a bad weekend, I go round the whole team to say thanks - even the catering and marketing people - to try to motivate them to keep pushing hard. Then it's back to the hotel or airport and by the next day I'm ready to drive again

On Sunday, it was a good feeling after the race. I felt I had done the maximum I could. I was able to do every lap 100% and if you do that you have to be happy, even if the result could have been better.

606: DEBATE
We only finished seventh, but without the problem in the pit stop I would have been a quite comfortable fifth and not far from Robert Kubica's BMW.

That's a big step forward and a bit of a surprise because at Barcelona you really need the performance of the car otherwise you're normally going to have a tough weekend.

But the car was pretty good and the race was a bit more like it should be. But the priority is still to get back to the front where Renault belong.



SEE ALSO
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Lapwatch: Spanish Grand Prix
13 May 07 |  Formula One
Heikki Kovalainen column
17 Apr 07 |  Formula One
Heikki Kovalainen column
20 Mar 07 |  Formula One
Heikki Kovalainen column
14 Mar 07 |  Formula One
Heikki Kovalainen column
24 Jan 07 |  Formula One
Heikki Kovalainen column
20 Dec 06 |  Formula One


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