x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Abu Dhabi can become a home from home for F1 driver Heikki Kovalainen

The Finnish Caterham driver, who is house-hunting in Abu Dhabi, speaks to Gary Meenaghan ahead of Sunday's big race

Heikki Kovalainen at the Abu Dhabi Golf Club in Abu Dhabi.
Heikki Kovalainen at the Abu Dhabi Golf Club in Abu Dhabi.

It is an often told tale that ahead of the inaugural Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in 2009, officials at Yas Marina Circuit said their goal was to have a local driver in Formula One within 10 years. Four years on and their goal could be about to be realised - although not in the way they would have imagined.

Heikki Kovalainen, Caterham's consummate Finn, is planning on calling Abu Dhabi home. The 31 year old told The National this week he and his partner, Catherine Hyde, are house-hunting in the emirate and hope to buy a villa on Saadiyat Island. They will then split their time between the UAE capital and their permanent home in Geneva, Switzerland.

The former McLaren-Mercedes driver, who will compete in this weekend's Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, has been visiting the city regularly ever since Hyde's parents moved here last year and he sees it as the perfect base for him during F1's winter break, as well as between the 20-race calendar's eight Asian events.

"Normally, I spend the winters in Finland doing a lot of cross-country skiing," he said. "I still plan to do that, but we start the F1 season in Australia and Malaysia, then we go to Bahrain as well, so being in the heat would be better.

"Location-wise, it is not that far from Europe, so you can come here even for a shorter period of time. How long exactly would I get to spend here is still kind of up in the air, but if we can find a place, I can see me spending many, many weeks here."

When Roger Federer, the world No 1 men's tennis player, announced a few years ago he was buying an apartment and setting up a second home in Dubai, one of the key factors he cited was the quality of the training facilities. Kovalainen is in agreement.

"It's a great place to do fitness training and to play golf," he said.

"It is just perfect really - especially over the winter when it cools down a little bit. Last week, I twice cycled the track at Yas and also did a lot of gym work and running in the heat at Etihad Plaza. It's pretty flat, but obviously very, very hot."

Kovalainen also enjoys being able to operate without hassle. When he took part in Yas Marina's weekly Train Yas open-track night, he was greeted by a smattering of fans, but otherwise was left to his own devices. He filled out the registration, got it stamped and went out on track. "I joined a group of cyclists who were clearly better than me; I was hanging on," he said. "I doubt they knew who I was. They just treated me like anyone else and I kind of like that."

It is the same scenario when he explores the city. Kovalainen and Hyde both celebrated their birthdays this month while in the capital, going for dinner at Hakkasan in Emirates Palace. "We tend to go out most nights to have a look around. It's really a modern city and very international. People think Abu Dhabi is very closed, yet everything is available. People know me here and often I get recognised, but it's nice. The Emiratis I have met have all been very friendly and enthusiastic about Formula One."

Track racing aside though, it is golf that is Kovalainen's passion. He can often be found - invisible club in hand - practising his swing in Caterham's travelling motorhome, while he is also friends with European Tour players such as Retief Goosen and Ian Poulter. When he visits Abu Dhabi, he enjoys the privilege of playing for free at Abu Dhabi Golf Club.

It was there, on the morning of last season's race at Yas Marina and before heading to the track, that he enjoyed a relaxing round with Lewis Hamilton, his former McLaren teammate. Kovalainen won the round, but Hamilton went on to win the grand prix in the afternoon. The Finn has ruled out a repeat of such preparations this coming Sunday.

"Abu Dhabi Golf Club is closed for seeding, so we can't play there this week and Lewis hasn't played for a long time now anyway - he has given up," Kovalainen, who plays off a 5.4 handicap, said. "He had a few bad rounds and wasn't enjoying it as much; getting quite frustrated.

"Golf is so psychological. He didn't practice at all and then when you don't play well, it's obviously frustrating."

Having gone out on the course three times last week, on Tuesday he scheduled a round with Matteo Manassero, the 19 year old Italian, who is a global ambassador for Abu Dhabi. He also hopes to take part in the Pro-Am for next year's Abu Dhabi Golf Championships, alongside Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods.

Much depends on what lies ahead on the racetrack, however. After struggling during two years with McLaren, although he did win the Hungarian Grand Prix in 2008, Kovalainen joined Team Lotus - now Caterham - in 2010 and has spent much of the past three seasons rebuilding his reputation from the back of the grid.

Such has been his admirable performances, he was linked earlier this season with a return to McLaren and also saw his name paired with Ferrari.

With Tony Fernandes, the Caterham team owner, still undecided, Kovalainen is naturally keeping his ear to the asphalt.

"We are looking, of course," he said. "I'm not stressed about it. I just keep my eyes open and my performance level as high as possible. I'm sure I have proved myself more here than I did at McLaren, but it's more difficult to convince people from where we are on the grid."

Fernandes says he will make a decision on his driver line-up soon, but it has been reported that if the marque miss out on the lucrative 10th place in the constructors' championship, Caterham might have to revert to employing drivers who can pay for their seats next season, instead of paying Kovalainen to drive for them.

"I'm sure that's a possibility," Kovalainen said. "It's a big deal for the team. They know that I don't bring money - they need to pay me, that's what I do. If my hands are not good enough here then that's how it is, but I don't ever really fancy looking for money."

When it is put to him that perhaps there could be potential for him to follow in the footsteps of Manassero and become an ambassador for the UAE capital, he smiles.

"If Abu Dhabi wanted to back me, I think suddenly a lot of the teams towards the front of the grid would be calling," he said. "But I don't like to see myself as a pay driver. It would need to be more like the partnership Fernando Alonso has with Santander. It's not something I'm even thinking about at the moment to be honest."

For now, Kovalainen's focus remains on achieving the best results possible with Caterham in the final three races of the season, starting with what he might, one day soon, be able to call his home grand prix.

 

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae