Can Kimi Räikkönen still cut it in Formula 1 when he returns with Lotus in 2012? That’s the inevitable question as we enter a season that will see a remarkable six World Champions on the grid.
When Räikkönen left Ferrari at the end of 2009 he was thoroughly disillusioned. Not only was that year’s car hugely disappointing, but from early on in the season the team had been trying to ease him out of the way to make room for Fernando Alonso for 2010. It was an uncomfortable environment to say the least – and yet Kimi still managed to win the Belgian Grand Prix.
He was eventually paid a large sum not to drive for Ferrari, on the understanding that he would not race for anyone else. In other words, had he taken up an offer elsewhere he would have lost out financially. He had talks about rejoining McLaren before Jenson Button got the job, but familiar with the team’s demanding PR schedule, and drained by the ’09 season, he opted out.
It was against this background that Räikkönen tried his hand in the World Rally Championship. He retained a foothold in F1, however, as his Citroën was backed by Red Bull – a company that could help ease him back into a prime F1 seat.
Räikkönen was convinced that Mark Webber would retire at the end of 2009, so creating a vacancy alongside Sebastian Vettel. In fact Webber had a great season in 2010, and extended his Red Bull Racing deal to 2011, and later to 2012. And with the likes of Daniel Ricciardo and Jean-Eric Vergne climbing the Red Bull ladder, any chance Kimi had of joining the team has since receded.
Over the past two years he has often professed his satisfaction with the WRC and a lack of interest in F1. He now admits he has missed the buzz of actual racing – something he realised on trying NASCAR earlier this year.
Aware he had to get back in the game in the best available car, Räikkönen talked to Williams, but prior to the Brazilian GP it was clear negotiations had stalled – and instead he was linked to Lotus.
A deal seemed unlikely given that tentative talks a year before had ended somewhat acrimoniously. This time both sides needed each other, especially after it became clear that Robert Kubica would not be fit to return to Lotus for the start of the 2012 season. Any past misunderstandings were quickly forgotten, and a deal was soon concluded.
There has been a lot of scepticism about Räikkönen’s motivation, but the bottom line is that he doesn’t need the money and doesn’t need to be doing this – and that probably says enough about his desire to make it work.
It’s easy to forget now that the 32-year-old was thrown into F1 in 2001 at Sauber with little chance to do any growing up, and then spent eight years under an intense spotlight at McLaren and Ferrari. Between his WRC commitments he’s had a chance to clear his head and see a bit more of the world.
Can he prove the sceptics wrong? He’s the same age Damon Hill was when he was starting with Williams and is potentially in his prime. Now it’s a question of how good the car is…