LONDON (Reuters) - Heikki Kovalainen smiles when people suggest he will be second among equals as Lewis Hamilton’s McLaren team mate.
The 26-year-old Finn has faced the same questions over and over since he was signed up as double world champion Fernando Alonso’s replacement at Woking and his self-belief remains undiminished.
He expects equal treatment from McLaren this season despite Hamilton’s long-standing and umbilically close relationship with the Formula One team who have backed the Briton financially for more than a decade.
He also intends to do his best to win.
Even if the 23-year-old Hamilton is considered a champion-in-waiting after ending his sensational debut season as overall runner-up, Kovalainen is not in a hurry to open any doors for his colleague.
“I would not have come to the team if I didn’t think I had an equal chance to fight for the championship and at McLaren I have that,” he told reporters at the launch of the new car in January.
“At least to start with I have exactly the same opportunity that Lewis has and then it’s up to me to build a relationship with the team and be as strong as I can and then we see what happens,” he added.
“But I absolutely have equal opportunities.”
Hamilton was the talk of Formula One last season, winning four races and missing out by a single point on becoming the youngest champion and first rookie to take the title after leading into the final Brazilian Grand Prix.
He was on the podium right from the start in Australia and stayed there for nine races in a row — an unprecedented feat for a rookie driver.
While Hamilton shone, Kovalainen had a far tougher time in a poorly handling Renault: his debut race was dismissed as ‘rubbish’ by team boss Flavio Briatore.
By the end of the year he had taken a fine second place behind Hamilton in the rain-soaked Japanese Grand Prix but, seventh overall, was discarded in favor of untested Brazilian Nelson Piquet junior.
Alonso’s swift return to Renault triggered what amounted to a straight swap with Kovalainen heading in the opposite direction.
The Finn is undeniably a safe bet for McLaren, eager to restore some calm after the internal feuding and bitter divisions of 2007.
Britain’s Autosport magazine recently dubbed him the ‘Niceman’, a play on the ‘Iceman’ nickname bestowed on Ferrari’s world champion and fellow Finn Kimi Raikkonen when he was at McLaren.
Kovalainen and Hamilton have been friends since their days in go-karts. The Briton sees him as something of a kindred spirit, an easy colleague to get along with.
“You know how it is with certain people, some people you ask questions and they give you one-word answers and some people make the conversation,” Hamilton said.
“With Heikki I don’t need to make the conversation, he is happy to start it and we just can talk for ages and I think he has very similar views to me.
“He loves the car without traction control, he loves racing wheel to wheel, he loves a real true spirit race.”
Positively garrulous when compared to the taciturn Raikkonen, Kovalainen is not to be under-estimated.
“Hamilton must not be complacent as Kovalainen will certainly be a very tough cookie,” former champion Alain Prost told Italy’s Autosprint magazine last month. “Where the championship is concerned, the Finn looks definitely dangerous.”
Kovalainen says he will do all he can to beat Hamilton but recognizes it will not be easy.
“He had a great season last year and he already showed that he can win a championship. But I will work with my car and the team to do as much as I can to beat him,” he said.
Hamilton is fully embedded in the McLaren way of doing things but he may also be feeling the burden of expectation after last year.
Just as Hamilton grabbed everyone’s attention by beating Alonso last year, the Finn can make his point by doing the same to his team mate — in the nicest possible way.
“We both obviously want to beat each other but in doing that we will try and do the best job we can individually but also to push the team forward and have a good year and just enjoy racing,” said Hamilton.
“I know that he is going to push me all the way...when we get to the first race we perhaps still won’t know just how much we are going to be pushing each other.
“But I have no doubt in my mind that Heikki’s going to be one of the quickest guys there.”
Editing by Clare Fallon