Ex-F1 driver Kovalainen announces retirement from SUPER GT
Former Formula 1 driver Heikki Kovalainen has announced that he won’t return to SUPER GT for an eighth consecutive season in 2022, citing personal reasons for his exit from the series.
Kovalainen joined Japan's premier racing category in 2015 after a long stint in F1 that included a maiden grand prix victory at the 2008 Hungarian Grand Prix with McLaren and also a relatively difficult period at the back of the grid with Lotus/Caterham.
Driving for the SARD team as a factory Lexus driver, Kovalainen and his teammate Kohei Hirate won the GT500 title in only the Finn's second season in the category with a victory in the championship decider at Motegi.
Kovalainen would never go on to contend for the title again, with SARD being hurt by the switch to the Lexus LC500 in 2017 and eventually the Toyota GR Supra last year, but the Finnish driver did add four more wins to his tally in as many years.
The 2021 season was the first since his rookie campaign where he failed to bag a single race victory or a podium, with a pair of fourth places at the either end of the year marking his best results.
Kovalainen said his decision to step down from SUPER GT was primarily due to a desire to spend more time with his family amid Japan's strict travel restrictions to curb the spread of coronavirus.
"We had the final round of the SUPER GT series on Sunday at Fuji, where I finished fourth," he said. "It was a pretty good result, it was the best result for us all season. So it was nice to finish the season with a reasonably strong race.
"But at the same time that was my last race in SUPER GT. I've been there for seven years and I've decided to call it a day in the SUPER GT series.
"I actually decided earlier this year when I went to Finland for a couple of days and stayed with my wife. I decided that it's going to be my last season.
"There are a couple of reasons for that. Obviously, this season has been tough for us and we haven't been as competitive as I'd like to be and we haven't been able to do the results.
"At times it's been tough to race in the middle or the back of the pack. But that's not the main reason.
"The main reason really is the coronavirus. The last two years I've spent most of the time in Japan due to travel restrictions. The border control in Japan is pretty strict.
"With a working visa you can get in and get out, but my wife couldn't do that. So I was forced to spend time away from my family and my wife for periods of time and I wasn't prepared to do that again next year.
"So that's the main reason for this decision. I want to thank SARD Racing, it's been a long time. SARD Racing and the whole SARD company has become a family to me."
#39 DENSO KOBELCO SARD GR Supra
Photo by: Masahide Kamio
Kovalainen's exit opens up a coveted seat alongside Yuichi Nakayama, with Sena Sakaguchi - who took the Finn's place at the team at Suzuka last year when he couldn't enter Japan due to the pandemic - the leading candidate to replace him at SARD.
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