What Kimi did next

Famed for his ‘Iceman’ persona, Kimi Räikkönen seems happy to have swapped F1 politics for the more relaxed setting of world rallying. Now there’s just that man Loeb to deal with…

Day two of Rally Finland, noodling slowly along a public road between special stages three and four, near a place called Kukkaro, Kimi Räikkönen and co-driver Kaj Lindström have pulled their Citroën Junior Team C4 onto the grass verge to make a final check on tyre pressures. While Kaj fiddles with dust caps and miniature bottles of compressed air, Kimi wanders into the woods nearby to answer a call of nature.

This gentle pastoral scene is, on the one hand, nothing more than entirely natural. But it’s simultaneously surreal and amusing. This is the 2007 Formula 1 World Champion we’re witnessing here, to say nothing of his being ‘The Most Famous Sportsman in Finland’. Race suit peeled down to his waist, back to a slowly gathering crowd who have spotted their hero in unexpected repose, Kimi finishes his business and returns to duty. From the smile on his face it’s safe to assume he needed the rest stop and he strides back to Kaj and car relaxed enough to attend to the sudden, unexpected demand for autographs.

This is not the Kimi Räikkönen who quit F1 at the end of 2009 jaded, demotivated by a lumpen Ferrari and restless for a change of scene. That Kimi had little time for the clamour, bustle and politics of F1. That Kimi needed out.

This Kimi, by contrast, has found a little space to breathe. Everything is still to prove in this new, hugely different arena, but these days it’s only to himself. And while that challenge creates its own, uniquely personal pressures, no longer is there the attendant drain of being a lead character in the Formula 1 global soap opera. For the World Rally Championship, currently a shadow of the multi-manufacturer shoot-out it was a decade ago, is very glad to count Kimi among its number. And if he’s not yet anywhere near the competitive level he desires (nor at that which his name and reputation demand), no bother. There’s space and time here to learn and grow; to let the tentacles of his talent reach out and explore something new.

He has rallied in Finland before, of course: in 2009 he hammered a Fiat Punto S2000 over a few stages before wrecking it. His attempt seemed nothing more than a bit of fun, a release from the Prancing Horse day job. In retrospect, perhaps we should have paid more attention to his restlessness and to the fact that Ferrari - always a demanding employer – was happy to set him free for a few days, risking breakages, injury… (His long-time physio Mark Arnall tells, as an aside, how Kimi thinks nothing of flying into trees from an out-of-control snowmobile as part of his winter training.)

But that was then. 2010 has Kimi rallying for real in a code switch that for its bravery alone deserves credit.

Thus far it hasn’t been easy, as the results attest: his best finish to date was an encouraging fifth place on Rally Turkey, but despite glimmers of speed his results have been… middling, and the ‘offs’ frequent.

This much, however, Kimi expected. “It’s much easier to have a very big accident,” he says. “There are no Formula 1 run-off areas and a small mistake can destroy the car. I knew I’d probably crash quite a bit, but still you want to go as quick as you can. For sure it’s difficult to get the pace I want.”Räikkönen is sharing his thoughts during a scheduled pause before the opening exchanges of Rally Finland, where, as chance would have it, the Iceman is greeted by the country’s warmest hot spell for 80 years. The swelter is making headline news (“38.2˚!” screams local rag Keskisuomalainen in towering numerals); Finnish elders, constitutions accustomed to dealing with similar figures, but in the negative scale, are wilting.

Finland’s rally-crazed and Kimi-blinkered youth, however, are loving it. Through the streets of Jyväskylä, where rally HQ is based, a blue-and-white body-painted throng creates a dense daily bustle that’s a rich visual accompaniment to the burble-pop-rumble soundtrack of rally machinery returning to, or venturing from, service. It’s clear that even in this rally-mad land that pops out winners like Smarties from a tube (Tommi Mäkinen, Marcus Grönholm, Juha Kankkunen and Markku Alén all stroll through the lobby of the rally HQ hotel during one 10-minute spell), a certain Mr Räikkönen is held in particular affection. One of those enjoying the weekend’s festivities, Lina Virtanen, offers her thoughts on his appeal: “He’s the most famous sportsman in Finland,” she says, “and people think he’s more relaxed now. After his first rallies the papers were punishing him like crazy because he wasn’t finishing. But that’s gone away because they can see how hard he is trying and that he is working to get better. He has fans who are adults and fans who are kids. You’re English, right? Maybe he’s a bit like David Beckham for you.”

As the lissome Lina talks, she is good-naturedly accosted by a group of lads of the type you’d imagine would make up a Räikkönen barmy army. “They’re typical,” she says. “They get wasted on the Thursday, sleep for a couple of hours, come out to a stage, then drink some more.” She translates a snatch of their conversation: “They’re saying, ‘We don’t know how we got home last night. We don’t even know where we’re staying, but we wanted to see Kimi.’ They asked me to go with them to the next stage. Er, no thanks.”

Such is the level of Räikkönen fever in these parts, the degree of success achieved seems almost academic. His being here, a champion on his home event (something never possible in F1 owing to the non-existence of a Finnish GP) is reason enough to celebrate.

The man himself, however, is predictably underwhelmed by the hoopla. With a hint of a half-smile cracking the right side of his mouth, he notes: “Ach… you know I never really had any interest if it’s home or whatever. For me it doesn’t matter. In the end the things are the same. Even in Finland… You know how things are in Finland [he rolls his eyes and smiles, laughing at his famously crazy fans].

“In F1, whether you were in China or in France… it made no difference. You do the same things at the same time. You go to a foreign country so the culture is a little bit different, but in the end it all becomes the same.”

Get the feeling Kimi is a hard man to impress?

He’s not immune, however, to his fans’ loyalty and passion, and in his own cool way seems almost touched by it: “I don’t know really what to think, but it’s nice to have support when we are learning so much and not getting the big results. It’s always important to have those people. It’s a good thing and good for the rally.”

The theme of ‘learning’ is one that pops up often in any conversation about Räikkönen’s 2010 adventure. And he admits his season is all about adapting to the varied demands of new car, new team, new countries, thumping rocks with abandon, a smorgasbord of surfaces: “On a track you always have the same road that you learn, but in rallying it’s always a new road, so it’s always difficult.”

But perhaps hardest of all to get used to is the voice in his head: that of Kaj Lindström. Kimi observes: “I was used to talking on the radio in racing, of course, but the big difference is that you really have to listen in rallying, to your pace notes. Most of the mistakes are made when I have not heard something right. It’s hard to learn. It doesn’t happen immediately because it’s such a new thing.”

For a man so often dismissed in Formula 1 as incommunicative (‘The Arctic Mute’, as one press veteran would have it) Kimi is remarkably lucid on topics that engage him, such as the process of driving. And the mental, physical process of making a WRC car go faster is something that interests him – indeed, right now, is his life’s purpose.

“For the guys who have done this for years, they don’t have to think about it, it just comes naturally,” he reflects. “In F1 I didn’t have to think about what I was doing, everything was just natural. Now we’re not at that level of ‘not thinking’. If you don’t listen enough, you miss some small thing and you do not have the pace.”

Hard enough when you’re the man in the hot seat; how about for the guy who’s passenger to the ultimate learner driver?

Lindström is past partner to multiple WRC champion Tommi Mäkinen and a man who once observed that “some pain is good for the soul”. Not one, then, to shy from a challenge. But he would not be mentoring Räikkönen had he not seen the foundations of speed on which to build.

“From the first rally I could see he was a really talented guy,” says Kaj. “I could see the potential to be a top driver in rallying, and I had to see that, you know, because without it there would be no motivation. Right now Kimi’s experience is like a very junior race driver and he wants to drive at 110 per cent all the time. But in every way you can see he’s a really professional racing driver who’s capable of adapting his style – like changing from figure skating to ice hockey. He has that fully professional touch.”

Strikes a somewhat different tone from certain quarters left less than enthused by Räikkönen’s spectacular apathy towards F1’s peripheral activities, such as media engagements or even factory visits.

None, however, ever questioned his commitment to on-track matters, to the business of taking on his rivals, to racing. Think of those he sparred with, and beat: Schumacher, Montoya, Alonso, Hamilton… In F1 the benchmark was always ‘The Best’; nudge him now and he’ll concede there’s been no change for the WRC. Different game, same tactics: “I measure myself against Sébastien [Loeb], of course. You end up comparing yourself against him because he’s the best. And in the Citroën team all the drivers are good: Dani [Sordo], [Sébastien] Ogier… Ogier is very fast now. So it’s not easy and there is a gap to close before I win a rally. I know the difference and sometimes I get close to them. That’s a nice feeling, but I can’t do it all the time because I don’t have the experience. Still, I’m confident I can be close.”

Confident and then some: there’s not a shred of self-doubt that given time and experience he’ll be up with the quick guys, beating them. He has taken counsel from Mäkinen, a long-time friend, on how best to approach, say, gravel as opposed to snow, and how to release the instinct to ‘drive what you see’ (as any track racer does) rather than always defer to the pace note. “Last year when I did some rallies, Tommi was looking after my car and I always trusted him,” says Räikkönen. “We did some driving together and definitely I had a big help from him, to know the basics. He still helps me and without that it would have been much harder.”

Perhaps, too, some technical assistance will come Kimi’s way. The Citroën C4 WRC has been developed around Loeb’s driving style to a degree similar to that enjoyed by Michael Schumacher in his Ferrari pomp. Räikkönen suffers for Citroën’s devotion to its ace, as his race engineer Cedric Mazenq explains: “Kimi’s style is too smooth for the way the C4 has been developed around Seb, and that means Kimi’s style is too smooth for gravel. He is actually very smooth with his inputs – he still has his F1 habits! But the telemetry shows us he’s learning and people forget that he’s a novice in terms of his experience.”

Now Kimi has ruled out a return to F1 with Renault it appears he will stick with the WRC for next year, possibly in a Monster-backed, M-Sport-run Ford Fiesta if rumours are to be believed. And his technical handicap will likely disappear, as all drivers will have to adapt to a new, less powerful technical package. This season he has amassed invaluable experience, but clearly doesn’t regard 2010-spec Kimi as the definitive rallying Räikkönen.

“We’ll have to see what we do next year,” he says. “Obviously I realise we are not so good now and I know we have to improve a lot. I’m still far away from where I want to be but all the time I am getting closer. That really is our aim, to get closer. I didn’t have any expectations for this season, so that was my goal, to be more comfortable for next year.”

On this warmest of days he’s already looking pretty darn’ comfy in this foreign-familiar environment, dressed as he is in flip-flops, board shorts, baggy T-shirt and a pair of rather outré blue-mirrored, crystal-framed Oakleys. These, we learn, were bespoke-ordered by Lindström to better achieve a ‘Team Kimi’ look when the pair were between stages. From the depths of the padded armchair into which he reclines – each minute a degree more horizontal - he chuckles with what by Räikkönen standards must constitute hearty appreciation of the angst-free vibe for which the WRC is famed: “It’s a different world. The people are more relaxed and friendly and I enjoy the atmosphere. F1 was friendly too, in its own way, and I had a good time there, but always too much politics. Maybe it’s easier to be open because now we’re racing against time, not against the man.

“In Formula 1,” he concludes, “there were a lot of good relationships, but also lots of not-so-good relationships.”

This is about as touchy-feely as Kimi gets, and while his words are hardly a window on the soul they do hint at a recurring theme among those asked to opine on this most studiedly impenetrable individual: he’s dead loyal to those he trusts. He has been with Arnall since McLaren times, back in the early noughties, while his father-and-son management team, David and Steve Robertson, saw him into F1, through it and are now drafting the next chapter. One or two of his old mates regularly come to rallies, too. They’re easy to spot: they’re the guys dressed head-to-toe in Räikkönen hand-me-down team freebie kit, a couple of sizes too small.

Somewhere deep in the woods, air thick with mosquitos and the heavy fug of spruce, the urgent screams and chatter of a WRC machine being caned hurry through the trees. Something fast and wild is approaching. A taste of disturbed dust on the air, that sudden atavistic tingle that tenses the senses. And –WHAAAAARRRRRPP! - there’s Räikkönen, hard on it through the timing beam, a squall of red-white-blue; then just as hard off it, brake discs squealing, Pirellis scratching to reverse thrust into slow-down. A collective exhalation (audible). Nervous laughter. Mumbling. Smiling glances to strangers, transported on exhilaration. People stir. Children dressed in too-large Räikkönen T-shirts pick up empty cans.

He wasn’t first, nor was he fastest. But the Kimi clan, now mobile toward the next stage, have made their subconscious collective judgement. They’ve seen what they came to see, are satisfied.

After Kimi, nothing else matters.