Heikki Kovalainen recovers from open-heart surgery, debuts in Japan with new Toyota rally car

Heikki Kovalainen has returned to the driver's seat after a medical leave.
Heikki Kovalainen.
Heikki Kovalainen. Photo by: Taneli Niinimäki/AKK
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The 42-year-old Kovalainen travelled to Japan earlier this week. After tests confirmed that there were no obstacles to competing, the former Formula 1 star decided to participate in the Kamuy Rally, the sixth round of the Japanese Rally Championship season.

During a routine check-up in the spring, Kovalainen was found to have an aortic aneurysm. The Finn underwent open-heart surgery but has recovered well. The Kamuy Rally marks Kovalainen’s first competition of the season.

The Finnish driver is also driving Toyota’s new Rally2 car for the first time. Kovalainen is used to dominating in Japan, but the long driving break and getting accustomed to the new vehicle were evident in his performance on Saturday. After six special stages, Kovalainen is in sixth place in the rally.

Leading the competition is Hiroki Arai in a Škoda, with Kovalainen trailing by just over a minute. In second place is Norihiko Katsuta, father of Toyota’s WRC team driver Takamoto Katsuta. However, Arai has left the elder Katsuta almost half a minute behind. The Arai family’s success is rounded out by Toshihiro Arai, who is in third place.

“It’s best to gradually increase the pace, but I’ve been told that I can push as normal if needed,” Kovalainen said before the rally to the Japanese Rally+ website.

According to Kovalainen, getting used to the new car takes time.

“The Toyota Rally2 car is completely different compared to the cars I’ve raced in this series before. It’s really hard to suddenly compete for top positions. The feeling is excellent nonetheless,” Kovalainen summarised.

The gravel rally continues on Sunday with six more special stages.

Kamuy Rally standings after SS6/12:

1. Hiroki AraiSkoda30:54.7
2. Norihiko KatsutaToyota+26.3
3. Toshihiro AraiSubaru+34.1
4. Fumio NutaharaToyota+39.9
5.Osamu FukunagaSkoda+40.8
6.Heikki KovalainenToyota+1:07.5
7.Takuma KamadaSubaru+1:29.7

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