Lewis Hamilton would be a worthy Formula One world champion this year, says the man who finished second to him in Sunday's Japanese Grand Prix.
Kovalainen joined Hamilton on the podium in Japan
Renault driver Heikki Kovalainen told BBC Sport: "Lewis has had a really good season, consistently winning races, always up there fighting, no mistakes.
"I think he deserves the championship - and now he is really close to that."
And the last British F1 champion, Damon Hill, said it had been "a joy to watch" Hamilton's performances this year.
Hill told BBC Radio 5live: "I don't think anyone predicted this, everyone knew he was good but he has really stunned everyone.
"This season has left a bit of a bad taste (because of the spying scandal) but someone like Lewis shows the sport can be incredibly successful on its own, if it is left to do its stuff."
Hamilton's victory at Fuji put him 12 points ahead of McLaren team-mate Fernando Alonso, with only 20 now available.
Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen is 17 points adrift of the Englishman and also has a statistical chance to take the crown.
Kovalainen added: "I'm sure Fernando and Kimi will fight until it is mathematically over but Lewis has the game now. He can afford to be cautious rather than take big risks."
If he wins the title, Hamilton will have beaten in a straight fight and in equal cars the man who was regarded at the start of the season as the greatest racing driver in the world.
But Kovalainen said it was important not to underestimate how much Hamilton has benefited from being Alonso's team-mate.
"Many people forget it but I'm sure he has learned a lot from Fernando," stated the 27-year-old Finn.
"He has always been able to compare his car's data to Fernando's data.
Many people forget it but I'm sure Lewis has learned a lot from Fernando
"When you compare your data to Fernando's lap you know the benchmark is really high.
"If you see you are losing somewhere and if you are able to improve your driving to his standards and your lap times to his lap times, you are always going to be up the front.
"He is one of the best drivers there. I think it has helped Lewis working with him, learning from him. He has taken full advantage of that."
Kovalainen, a BBC Sport columnist, achieved his best result of the season in the torrential conditions in Japan and said he was now convinced he would be in F1 again next season, even though Renault have not yet announced their driver line-up.
The F1 driver market remains up in the air as a result of speculation about Alonso's future at McLaren, with rumours that he could go back to Renault or move to Ferrari.
Alonso is nearly out of the title race - and possibly out of McLaren, too
Kovalainen said: "It's very important to have this good result but I don't think my future was dependent on it.
"I think I will remain in F1 next year and I hope I can stay with Renault but at the moment the team hasn't made a decision yet. Everyone is waiting for what Fernando will do.
"If there was a chance to get Fernando Alonso, any team would want him. He's a double world champion, a fantastic driver. There's no question about that.
"Whether he wants to leave McLaren is another thing. It's a competitive team, with a competitive car. I hope I can stay with them but I think I'm in a strong position now and I am not concerned.
"I think my future has been looking good since the last six or seven races.
Whatever your team-mate is saying, if you're a good driver with a strong mentality it doesn't bother you too much
"I haven't been too worried about it. I have managed to turn around the problems I had at the beginning of the season and show people what I can do."
Alonso's future at McLaren is in doubt following a series of disagreements with team boss Ron Dennis, while the Spaniard's relationship with Hamilton appears to have broken down completely after a series of derogatory statements from the Englishman in Japan.
But Kovalainen believes Alonso would not let that influence his decision.
"I don't think he's too interested. Whatever your team-mate is saying, if you're a good driver with a strong mentality it doesn't bother you too much. It's normal," said Kovalainen.
"If people say things you just focus on your own job. It's part of F1."