Young Heikki Kovalainen, from Finland, created a sensation on Saturday by winning the 2004 Race of Champions at the Stade de France in Paris. Aged just 23, the 2004 "World Series by Nissan" victor not only became the youngest driver to win the coveted trophy but he also follows a long and prestigious line of rally superstars… including last year's winner Sébastien Loeb, the man he defeated in the evening's finale.
Playing to a near-packed house, the world's leading motor sport champions kept the 60,000 spectators thrilled – and warm – with an action-packed show that created more than one stunning surprise, from the first heats all the way through to the final itself. And the man responsible for many of those surprises was Kovalainen.
After eliminating F1's David Coulthard in his first match, he went on to dispose of Jean Alesi. That result saw him qualify for a place in the "racers' final" against seven-times F1 World Champion Michael Schumacher who he promptly defeated by a little less than 1 second around the 1km all-asphalt figure-of-eight track!
Meanwhile, reigning World Rally Championship Sébastien Loeb had successively disposed of Tony Kanaan, Armin Schwarz and 2003 Champion of Champions winner Marcus Grönholm.
The first of the final's three heats was raced at the wheel of Peugeot 307 WRCs, which theoretically gave the advantage to Loeb. Kovalainen only sat inside a WRC car for the first time just minutes before the start as Peugeot engineers took time to talk him through the different controls, including the car's steering wheel mounted gearshift system.
And clearly the lesson worked for the Finn who immediately went out to score a stunning victory over Loeb by 8/10ths of a second, profiting from an early mistake by the Frenchman. Switching to Ferrari 360 Modena Challenge for the second heat seemed to tip the advantage back in favour of Loeb who crossed the line first. However, he was deemed to have touched a barrier, which earned him a 10s penalty to hand the title to his young opponent.
"I just can't believe it," exclaimed the Finn after the finish, "especially the fact that I beat rallying's World Champion in a WRC car. Amazing! And it's not every day you get a chance to beat Michael Schumacher. That was a big moment. I just tried to attack a little harder, brake a little later. And the atmosphere was great too!"
Sébastien Loeb sportingly recognised that the Finn had driven very well. " The chicane on the bridge was very narrow for the Ferrari and I just nudged the carrier. But it's been an enjoyable afternoon and I love the atmosphere," he commented. "My main objective now will be to win the Race of Champions – Nations Cup for France."
Highlights of the event, presented by Citroen, will be featured in High Octane Motorsport on Supersport on the following dates:
14 Dec, 22h30 - CSN / Supersport 2
15 Dec, 05h00 - Supersport 2
15 Dec, 13h00 - CSN / Supersport 2
17 Dec, 09h00 - Supersport 2
20 Dec, 22h30 - Supersport 2