Heikki Kovalainen is convinced that he has come out of two tough seasons at McLaren a better driver, and thinks the experience will help him push the new Lotus team forward.
Kovalainen has signed to race alongside Jarno Trulli at the new Lotus outfit from 2010 and, although he never achieved the success he hoped for at McLaren, he is sure what he learned there will help him in his new environment.
"I am sure I am in better shape now," Kovalainen told AUTOSPORT during a visit to the Lotus factory this week, where he had his seat fitting. "I am a better race driver. I can drive the car quicker than when I drove the Renault [in 2007]. I have learned many things – how to work with a team, how to set up a car, how to go racing. I think I am better in every area.
"But, it is probably not a massive difference. It is not night and day. Already at Renault, I drove the car, especially at the end of the season, very well. But, I think I have learned things that I have brought to this team and I can use in the future. And I can bring better results."
Kovalainen says he is fired up about the challenge he faces in getting Lotus up to speed ahead of the famous name's return to F1.
"I feel well. I feel happy. I feel relaxed. I feel very motivated. And excited," he said. "I think it is a difficult task ahead, there is no question about that, but I am up for a challenge, up for a lot of hard work, and it is very interesting as well. In fact, it has been a long break from driving so it has been quite interesting, especially since I've joined Lotus, to spend time with Mike [Gascoyne] and the guys here – seeing how everything gets set up. It is something to do in the winter."
Although some were surprised at Kovalainen's decision to join a new team, the Finn claims that the move was actually clearer for him than joining established squads.
"I just felt that this was the most stable option available to me," he said. "The other teams were still wondering who was going to own the team, who was going to sponsor the team and who was going to pay the bills.
"Funnily enough, for a new team I was convinced after I met Tony [Fernandes] and Mike [Gascoyne]. First of all, they have the budget in place. They have the people coming to the team eventually – they will be current people, and not people who have been out of the paddock for one or two years.
"So, for me, it felt that this was the most stable place. I saw the most potential at this team compared to other places and, in the long-term, I feel that this was the best option for me. Very quickly I made myself mentally very clear about where I was going, and let's see where we get."
Kovalainen does not expect too much performance-wise over the first half of the season, but thinks rapid progress should be made after that.
"I think it will be very tough," he said when asked about the potential for the start of the year. "Sometimes when I talk to Tony he is very excited and it seems like we are going to win the first race. But, I am being more realistic and I don't want to build too big expectations.
"I am quite confident when the car comes out of the design office and we build the first car, fingers crossed, the gut feeling is that it will probably be running OK, and reasonably reliable. It might not be the quickest car, but it should be OK. It will be somewhere in the middle, and maybe ahead of the other new teams. It will be a solid car – and, hopefully, it will not stop every second lap of the first test. But then I think the big question mark is the first race. How do we work as a race team?
"All the (crew) and everybody are all current people, but still there is not very much time to practice pit stops and run the cars. We are having meetings and running through the whole weekend – that is why I am spending quite a lot of time here at the beginning, to make sure I can – and everyone can – do as much as possible in the short time we have.
"It will be tough, but I think we can do it. If we can get well through the first three or four months, then we will see big improvements in terms of operation, and become more solid. In terms of developing the car through the season, I don't know how we will do with that, but I think we can do something and it will be a solid effort."
Kovalainen also wants this season to show that the reputation McLaren labeled him with last season of being a good qualifier, but not up to it in races, is wrong.
"I think I know the reasons why the races were not good enough – nearly 100 percent, perhaps 95 percent. But I don't want to get into it that much. I've never felt that my race pace has been a particular problem. In the past it has been, in fact, one of the stronger areas. In fact, if anything, I would have thought that qualifying in GP2 – and when I was testing in the first year with Renault – I felt that qualifying was something I could do better, that I could get more out of the new tires. But the races were always where I was improving positions and going forward, so I didn't think it was an area where it needed particular attention.
"I think it might have looked like that from the outside, but I know what was going on and what the reasons were. That is all I need to know.
"People have this kind of theory and I need to show that it is not a problem, and that is probably the main focus this year. To make sure that the race pace is like it should be, and that it shows on the paper – rather than what is going on in the background. That is one of the key targets this year."