After a difficult season Kimi Räikkönen gives a rare insight into what went wrong at Ferrari – and reveals why there was never any doubt about his staying
By Adam Cooper
Kimi Räikkönen remains something of an enigmatic character to the outside world. He doesn’t help himself with his apparent lack of enthusiasm in press conferences – perhaps not surprising given his low boredom threshold – but get him on his own for an interview and he’s always far more open and interesting.
Spend time with him socially and yet another Kimi Räikkönen emerges. To say that he is the life and soul of any gathering would be an understatement. Away from the pressure cooker of the Formula 1 paddock, he becomes so relaxed and chatty that it’s hard for anyone else to get a word in. He also conveys a far deeper understanding of the sport, and many other subjects, than you might expect.
In stark contrast to the superficially more outgoing Fernando Alonso – who keeps himself to himself – Kimi is arguably the most social of any of the current crop of racing drivers, always ready to spend a Sunday night after a race relaxing with his peers. And you won’t find any of them with a bad word to say about him. He’s never made an enemy in the paddock, either with his actions on the track or his carefully chosen words off it.
He’s also fiercely loyal. He spends much of his down-time with old friends from Finland and still counts Sauber team manager Beat Zehender as one of his best pals seven years after they worked together. He has resolutely refused all suggestions that he should distance himself from father-and-son management team David and Steve Robertson now that he’s a major-league earner. He acknowledges that he wouldn’t have made it without them and regards the younger Robertson as a sort of big brother.
The contrasting public and private faces of Räikkönen reflect a curious roller-coaster pattern to his F1 career. In 2001 the precocious Finn had a sensational impact on the top level of the sport with Sauber after making the unprecedented jump straight from Formula Renault. With McLaren in 2003 he challenged Michael Schumacher for the World Championship, only for engine dramas to ultimately cost him dear. In 2005 he very nearly beat Fernando Alonso to the title, but again Mercedes unreliability proved expensive. And then in 2007 he finally won it first time out with Ferrari after a season of astonishing consistency during which he barely put a foot wrong.
Spot a theme? For some reason Räikkönen’s career peaks coincide with odd-numbered years, so perhaps it was destined that 2008 would prove to be so difficult.
In the end he scraped home a respectable third in the World Championship, beating Robert Kubica on the tie-break of having two wins to the BMW man’s one. Nevertheless he was some 22 points shy of team-mate and championship runner-up Felipe Massa and, while it’s easy to point to circumstances that would have made that gap smaller, few would argue against the proposition that the Brazilian did the better job over the season.
“It was definitely not what we wanted,” says Räikkönen. “We had a pretty good year in one way, but then we made mistakes when we took some wrong choices. And I made mistakes. After that we weren’t able to recover from it; we had some bad races.”
So what went wrong? It’s not an easy question to answer. Closer examination reveals that things weren’t as bad as they might appear, and perhaps the most baffling statistic is that in 2008 Kimi set no fewer than 10 fastest laps – to the one of Lewis Hamilton. Given the right circumstances, the pace was clearly still there.
He scored two solid wins early in the year at Malaysia and Spain, and for a while he led the championship. If anything, Massa was the guy under pressure in the first third of the season.
But then Räikkönen endured a series of dramas that were beyond his control. A problem fitting the wheels on the grid in Monaco led to a penalty which dropped him down the order, and then the team made a bad call on strategy. Trying to catch up, he made a mistake that took out the unfortunate Adrian Sutil, something he’s apologised for many times.
In Canada he led out of the first pitstops only to be thumped by Hamilton. In France he was comprehensively beating Massa when an exhaust broke and he had to cede the lead. And on a drying track at Silverstone he was catching leader Hamilton when again the team made a bad tyre call as rain returned.
All of those lost chances came in the face of ongoing struggles to get the F2008 to his liking. Massa generally felt more comfortable in the car, and the situation became more acute after mid-season developments left Kimi floundering to find a set-up that worked for him.
“We tried [various changes] in a test and thought it was good, but then we couldn’t get the car where we wanted. Then really there was no other test to try, and finally we decided to go back [to what we had before] and it seemed to be better. But we wasted a few races on that.
“It’s not the first time it’s been like that. Last year was similar at some point. Sometimes it seems to be difficult to get it exactly right. It’s on the edge all the time, and if you get it right it’s good, but if you’re a little bit off, it seems to make everything difficult. I don’t know whether it’s the tyres or getting everything together to make the tyres work.”
Qualifying was especially problematic for Räikkönen, who often struggled to get the tyres to reach optimum temperature on an out-lap. “Everything seemed to be much more difficult than it should be, and you lost time in one place, like three-tenths,” he says. “We were getting a little closer all the time and especially in the races the car was usually good. But over one lap, sometimes it was good in one qualifying session, but in another it was difficult. It was hard to get it consistently good.
“Felipe and I have different [driving] styles for sure, and our cars were quite a bit different. It’s just a different way of driving, it’s been there even last year. We just haven’t found a way to get everything as we want.”
Further changes brought the car more to Räikkönen’s liking at Spa, a track where he had won the previous three races. In the dying laps he had the lead when it started to rain and Hamilton controversially squeezed by. As he tried to fight back Kimi lost control and stuck it in the wall.
“It was a bit disappointing. I knew if it started raining it was going to be more difficult. With the hard tyres it was very difficult anyhow. I wanted to win – it was the only way to really recover my championship. OK, afterwards it’s easy to say that Lewis [deserved] a penalty, but I’d rather race on the circuit and get the results on the circuit than somewhere else. It could have been different, but I wanted to win, and that’s what I tried. And I crashed.”
Kimi’s struggles in the many wet races this year made him look like a beginner, but in reality his (and Massa’s) problems just put a focus on weaknesses in the car: “When things are not working it doesn’t matter how good you are. If something isn’t working on the car, or you can’t get the car or the tyres or the whole package together, there’s nothing you can do. You can only do your best and still people are passing you, or you can’t pass people. You just need to try and fix it. We saw last year we had wet races and we were strong – always. It’s not like suddenly we lost how to drive in the wet.
“It’s a similar issue in the dry, but when it’s bad weather, maybe it’s multiplied. I don’t think it’s purely that the car is not good in the wet, it’s just sometimes we get things working, sometimes not. They’ve been quite complicated races anyhow, with all the things going on.”
A couple of races after Spa, Räikkönen crashed heavily at Singapore. For a man who drove flawlessly in 2007, it was especially galling to make so many errors. “Probably more than for many, many years!” he says with a sheepish grin. “But that’s the price you pay. Sometimes you push hard and you don’t get anything. You feel worse when you make the mistakes yourself and crash out, like Singapore. I lost points for fifth place, the team lost points, but for myself it didn’t make any difference in the championship, so it’s not a big deal.
“I wanted to get past the Toyota and there were only a few places where I had a chance, but I needed to be very close. Unfortunately I hit the kerb too hard, locked the wheel and couldn’t turn the car enough. I could have easily driven around and come fifth, but I wanted to be fourth. And I got nothing. It wasn’t the car – the car was pretty good in the race there. I just pushed too hard in the wrong place.”
Two major offs in three races did not do much for Räikkönen’s reputation, especially as Massa was up there fighting for the title. Did he feel under pressure as his season went off the rails?
“I wouldn’t say [there was] pressure, but of course you want to have good results, and the team wants good results. It’s easier if you have a good race – it gets everybody to stop talking bullshit. But it’s always the same in F1. You can have a bad race, or if you have a good race a week later the same people say completely the opposite things.
“You know when you shouldn’t read the newspapers and when it’s OK to read them! I mean, it’s not the first time. It’s not nice, but it’s not going to change anything in my life. They sell their papers, and there are always critics. Even when you do well there are some people who like you and some who don’t – you’re never going to make all the people happy. I can live with that.”
If there’s one thing that does rile him, it’s when criticism extends from his performance to the way he lives his life away from the track. Over the years he’s proved an easy target for the tabloids, especially in his native country. His view is that whatever he does when he’s letting his hair down has no effect on his racing – quite the opposite in fact, because if he’s enjoyed himself on his days off, he returns to work in a positive frame of mind. And Ferrari seems to have adopted a more laissez-faire approach to the subject than did Ron Dennis.
In the summer Kimi’s life was made harder by suggestions that he had retirement in mind – despite the fact that he only turned 29 in October, and his contract stretched into 2009. Those who were convinced that Alonso was on his way to Maranello were silenced when Ferrari announced that Räikkönen’s contract had been extended to include 2010. Coming just after the Spa debacle, it was a timely vote of confidence.
“I always had next year, but people were saying that I was going to retire after this year. I never said that. If you don’t say anything, then people start making up stories, and in F1 it all gets quite silly very soon. It’s normal…
“I know what’s going on, nobody else does. I read so much weird stuff that it’s funny. Like I said, it’s normal in Formula 1. A lot of stuff is going on – rumours – and when you don’t say anything then people get even more excited that they’re right. I don’t mind. There are always going to be rumours.
“I’ve never been really worried about my future,” he adds. “OK, when you have bad times people think that you’re going to sign whatever you get. We talked with the team for a while and in the end we found a good position for both sides where we were both happy, and then we decided to sign.
“I was not in a hurry, I still had next year. It wasn’t going to change anything. But I’m happy to sign a new contract and be with the team. We’re going to have some good years still – and some wins.”
So will he ever again drive anything other than a Ferrari?
“I’ve said that this is probably going to be my last team. But in Formula 1 you never know. I’m happy here, and as long as we do good things and everybody is happy then I don’t have a reason to go anywhere else. But you’ve seen what happens in F1 – it can change a lot.”
As noted Kimi is still only 29, but 2009 will be his ninth season in F1 and the eighth to be conducted in the intense glare that comes from driving for one of the two top teams. Retirement doesn’t figure in his plans just yet, however.
“I’m not going to do this until the end of my life! There are a lot of other things to do, but I still enjoy F1. It hasn’t been the season that we expected, but it doesn’t change the approach or the feeling about F1. Hopefully next year we can be stronger again and fight for the championship.”
Of course the disappointments of 2008 were made easier to handle in the knowledge that he’s already got one World Championship win to his name. “If I hadn’t won last year, and if we had ended up in the same position I’m in now, it would have been harder,” he says. “I always wanted to win at least one [championship], and if I win more it’s a nice thing and that’s what we’re aiming for.”
And in the end, Räikkönen believes this past year has only made him a better driver. “You always learn,” he says. “It’s not the first year that I’ve had some hard times. Sure, you’d rather have a good year after you win [the title]. It’s so easy to lose points and to have bad races, and it all changes very quickly. It’s hard when you make mistakes, but you need to take the best out of them and find the good things.”