There aren’t many tougher jobs in world sport than being Lewis Hamilton’s team-mate, as one of the first men to take on the role in Formula 1, Heikki Kovalainen, told talkSPORT.
Seven-time world champion Hamilton is F1’s most successful driver, securing the most wins, pole positions and points in the sport’s history, often crushing opponents along the way.
The likes of four-time champion Sebastian Vettel saw their reputation fade in the battle with the Briton, and even those close to reigning champion Max Verstappen have admitted his career could be limited by the Mercedes driver.
2016 champion Nico Rosberg, who retired less than 24 hours after his win, was one of the only men to match Verstappen’s feat and beat Hamilton in nearly even machines.
Rosberg staged the feat as Hamilton’s team-mate, a feat that has never been matched on a single other occasion in Hamilton’s 16 years in F1, with the 37-year-old rarely surprised by those who are in the same car.
In 2011, Jenson Button managed to overthrow Hamilton in the standings but failed to win a title, while Fernando Alonso and Valtteri Bottas are among the few to face the Briton.
The second driver to team up with Hamilton in F1 was Kovalainen, who raced alongside Hamilton in the 2008 and 2009 seasons, the first of which saw the Briton win his first world title.
And Kovalainen was able to offer rare insight into the job alongside an at times enigmatic Hamilton, describing how difficult it can be.
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The Rally Team AICELLO driver told talkSPORT: “Sometimes I could match it, but all season I had to stretch every session to match it.
“You can’t do a lot of stretches and then you run out of energy and that was my case, I didn’t have enough margin in my ability to do the times and runs that he did, so this was not easy.
“His level of performance is so high that even for super talents like Max, it takes a lot of effort, a lot of focus, a lot of energy, so it’s not going to be easy, not everyone can handle that, it’s as simple as that.
“I think Rosberg had to use every tool in his toolbox to be able to beat Lewis and it almost killed him, he said it himself, he couldn’t have done another season like that or he would be dead.”
Kovalainen witnessed Hamilton’s first triumph in 2008, but the then McLaren driver had to wait six years before his next championship victory at Mercedes.
Hamilton replaced F1 great Michael Schumacher at Mercedes, with Germany’s record seven championships seemingly never to be broken until Hamilton started.
“When I was there, you wouldn’t have thought he would break Michael’s record,” Kovalainen said. “But even then everyone knew he was very good.
“He was super talented and dedicated in all sorts of ways that you can measure, he’s on top.
“So already at that time it was obvious that he was going to be good, he was going to be world champion one day, it was quite obvious from an early age and then it turned out to be the case.
“It’s not just pure talent, there’s a lot of talented guys there, and I think in Lewis, talent and hard work combined.
“He’s obviously very dedicated and he’s very determined, if he wants something and he’s aiming for something, he’s determined to make it happen.
“It was evident in everything he did, if you were going to play golf he was determined, if he wanted to beat you in everything he could and that’s one of his strengths.
“I believe the setbacks he’s had in his life, he’s been super good at dealing with them way more than any other athlete, not just race drivers, he’s very good at turning things around and coming back stronger. “
Hamilton’s first F1 task saw him come up against reigning two-time world champion Alonso, whom he beat in the 2007 standings, seeing the Spaniard leave McLaren after just one season.
Alonso hasn’t won a title since, and Kovalainen wondered if being Hamilton’s teammate was a factor.
“Since [Alonso’s] championship years with Renault, he always made the wrong choice and sometimes I wonder if the trigger was not the surprise of Hamilton’s speed,” he said.
“If that’s the central problem, then the falling out with [McLaren boss] Ron Dennis and with the team followed and there was nowhere else to go, Renault was kind of on a downward slope, he was just playing catch-up after that and it never really recovered.
The only man to knock Hamilton down in a straight championship fight was his childhood friend Rosberg, with their relationship damaged beyond repair after four years with Mercedes.
GP3 and Formula 2 champion George Russell is next to take on the task of beating Hamilton, and so far he’s been doing well, finishing fifth at the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix last time out, five places ahead of Hamilton .
Kovalainen insisted he was “too early to judge” Russell, but was honest in comparing himself to Rosberg, which perhaps Russell could take as advice.
“Maybe one of the reasons I always got on well with Lewis, especially when I was his teammate, was that I never became a huge threat to him,” Kovalainen explained.
“It’s just a hard fact, him and Rosberg for example, they didn’t get along well and I think one of the reasons was that Rosberg was able to resist him harder, and he was doing things that didn’t weren’t nice but were probably needed in battle.
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