Kimi Räikkönen’s single-minded victory in Abu Dhabi was vindication for his Formula 1 return. At least, that’s true for Lotus. Not for the man himself. He couldn’t care less what any of us think.
By Adam Cooper
Is Kimi Raikkonen the most polarising character in Formula 1? His disengaged demeanour in public leaves some observers as cold as his Ice Man nickname, and yet at the same time it has won him an army of fans who enjoy his straightforward approach both to life and to motor sport.
He’s attracted a lot more support during his remarkable comeback season with Lotus. Even before his popular victory in Abu Dhabi he had silenced the sceptics with a string of solid performances that propelled him into an unexpected third place in the World Championship. No one could have predicted that at the start of the year, even Kimi himself.
“I wanted to come back purely for racing, that’s the only reason,” he says. “If you would have told me before the 2012 season that we would be in this position, then of course we would have taken it. But when you do well, you want to do better and better all the time.”
Raikkonen remains something of an enigma, even to his fans. He may not enjoy opening up in front of the TV cameras, but get him on his own and you find a man who thinks long and hard about every aspect of his racing, and yet doesn’t allow it to completely take over his life. There is no ‘BS’ with him, no hidden agenda — he just wants to drive fast cars. There are good reasons why he has no enemies in the paddock, and is popular with his fellow drivers. He’s a guy they can trust both on and off track.
Off-duty, he comes alive as the heart and soul of any social gathering, particularly when surrounded by loyal friends from his native Finland. Readers of this magazine can be assured that they would enjoy a late night conversation with Kimi about the sport we all love. He is after all the man who wore a replica James Hunt helmet in this year’s Monaco GP.
He’s a throwback to the multi-disciplined past in other ways, too, and during his twoyear hiatus from Grand Prix racing he was willing to try his hand at disciplines as diverse as rallying and NASCAR. For Kimi it’s the pure competition that matters — and eventually he came to the conclusion that F1 was still the ultimate challenge.
It’s easy to forget now that his absence was never planned, and was instead forced upon him by Ferrari. Kimi was struggling through a difficult 2009 season with a hopeless car when the Maranello management sought a way to force him out to make way for the incoming Fernando Alonso. It was a messy situation.
“There could have been a much different way of doing things from their side, but it’s past,” he recalls. “I know the reasons. I still speak to people when I see them, most of the guys I still have very good relationships with. Certain people could have been more normal…”
Kimi could have remained in F1 in 2010, and he had a chance of returning to McLaren in the seat that ultimately went to Jenson Button. But he was a little burned out after the Ferrari experience, and the prospect of an endless schedule of Vodafone PR appearances had limited appeal. The other inescapable issue was that Ferrari was paying him a lot of money not to drive in 2010, and signing for someone else would have voided that.
“I could have raced, but I couldn’t get the deal done. OK, the money is not everything, but it’s a bit pointless to do it that way. I was pretty happy at that time to do something else. But it doesn’t mean I didn’t like the racing — I always enjoyed the racing, but all the other bullshit around it unfortunately is not the most interesting thing in F1.”
On paper at least Kimi’s rally career was not a great success story. He finished a humble 10th in the WRC in both seasons, running at the back of the top 10 in most events, with a best result of fifth in Turkey in 2010. But there were flashes of speed, and the fact that he was able to occasionally compete with the very best in such a tough discipline was itself impressive. Most importantly, he enjoyed himself.
“I wasn’t expecting to do well. I think I did pretty well comparing the knowledge and experience that I had. Of course when you’ve won races and championships in F1 they expect that you should win rallies, but the fact is that it’s a completely different sport, so you will not have a chance to win there.
“They are the guys doing it for a profession for many, many years, and I would never expect to be on the level that they are.
“We were getting better all the time, the last year especially. We should have done many years more to compete with them. We could do well on one stage, but they do it every stage, and every rally.”
He also had his fair share of crashes, but intriguingly it was the element of risk that appealed to Kimi: “It’s a different thing, you pay the price when you make a mistake. In F1 you lose one lap, usually in a rally you lose the whole rally or the test or whatever.
“You have to put much more effort in a rally, and concentration, than you have to in F1. You have more things that you have to do at the same time, listening [to a co-driver] and so on, more things besides the driving. In F1 you know what’s coming, in a rally you go towards new things every corner.”
Grand Prix racing seemed far away when in May 2011 Kimi turned his attention to NASCAR, and competed in Craftsman Truck and Nationwide events at Charlotte. He made a big impression and enjoyed the US scene, and the return to wheel-to-wheel competition reminded him of what he’d been missing in the WRC. But rather than pursue opportunities in America, he looked to F1 as the means of getting that buzz back.
Since the line-ups in the top teams were to remain unchanged, conversations began with Williams and Renault. Due to become Lotus in 2012, the latter outfit had endured a tough season, stymied by the novel side-exit exhaust that restricted development. However, Kimi could see the potential of a team that had won the World Championship as recently as 2006.
Crucially, he quickly established a good rapport with team principal Eric Boullier and owner Gerard Lopez. They understood that Kimi needed some leeway to live his own life away from the track, and that he didn’t want to be tied down to the sort of endless PR commitments that a McLaren or Ferrari driver faces. He was duly confirmed as a Lotus driver immediately after the last race of 2011 in Brazil.
“We didn’t really speak to anybody else except Williams and Lotus. I think either one of them, it wouldn’t have been much difference. I’m very happy where I am now. The people are nice, and I think the decision was made because it came very easily together. Most of the people have been there many years, they have the tools to build the car, and they have the people who have the passion now to do it.
“I think the understanding was similar on both sides, and it was quite easy, how to go forward with no more bullshit. I mean, they wanted me and I wanted to race, and I thought it’s a good place and I could get my own engineer from the past. So it wasn’t something completely unknown, he knew the team and he knew me and I knew him. So I tried to put myself in a position to at least have the best chance to do well.”
As ever with Kimi, views on his return were mixed. Many media folk questioned his commitment, and pointed to his supposed lack of it during his last year with Ferrari, seemingly forgetting that he had somehow dragged an uncompetitive car to victory at Spa.
“They are always full of bullshit, they don’t know what you’re doing, they don’t know what’s going on in my head, if I’m interested or not. They always think they know everything, but they have no idea. But it’s been like that ever since I’ve been in Formula 1, and I don’t expect it to change.
“It probably changes for a while when you do well, but when races don’t go so well they start saying you have no interest any more, or no motivation. I don’t know where they come up with the stories, but I don’t mind. I do my own thing.
“Of course sometimes it doesn’t go as well as you expected yourself, and you’re not happy with what you have done, when you haven’t had the strongest weekend. But that’s life, and you go forwards.”
To give himself a head start, Kimi tested an old Renault. It was his first chance to sample Pirellis, albeit in ‘demo’ form rather than proper race compounds.
“I’d been doing different things so I wasn’t sure how it was going to be. That’s why I wanted to do it, to at least see how it is, and give some time before I do the first proper test to see if the neck is OK, and all those things. After a few laps I felt very normal, as if I’d just been away for one winter and started again.
“Then when I drove the 2012 car the first time I knew straight away after the first laps that it should be pretty good, no major issues, and that’s how it worked out.”
It was a correct call. From the start of the season Raikkanen and team-mate Romain Grosjean demonstrated that the E20 was capable of challenging for podiums. Remarkably up to Abu Dhabi he had scored in every race except China, where his tyres fell off the ‘cliff’ and he dropped out of the points.
Abu Dhabi aside, second places in Bahrain and Hungary were highlights, although he received some criticism after the first for failing to get past eventual winner Sebastian Vettel: “Bahrain we should have won, we got one chance, and if it would have been now at the end of the season I probably would have been much more aggressive. But that’s how it goes.”
That’s a fascinating admission, but given that Melbourne was his first Grand Prix weekend for 28 months it’s perhaps not surprising that it took him a while to get fully into the groove. Apart from the tyres he also had to adjust to heavy fuel loads — when he left, races were still sprints between pitstops. However, getting everything together in qualifying proved the biggest challenge.
“We’re still making small mistakes with different things, we don’t get the best out of qualifying sometimes. It’s a case that if we get the car and everything right, and if we get one lap out of the car, it will be good.”
After the summer break Lotus lost its way on development. New parts for India provided a boost, but a set-up change for qualifying didn’t work and left Kimi frustrated.
In Abu Dhabi a week later, everything finally came together. Promoted from fifth to fourth on the grid by Vettel’s relegation for a lack of fuel in qualifying, Kimi showed plenty of aggression as he burst past Mark Webber and Pastor Maldonado off the line. When Lewis Hamilton retired he took the lead, and put in a faultless race to the flag.
The victory came just a few days after Kimi was formally confirmed as a Lotus driver for 2013. He always had an ongoing deal with Lotus, but his form had not gone unnoticed elsewhere in the pitlane. Both McLaren and Ferrari had made serious approaches, and the fact that they wanted him back says much about the man and the high regard in which he is held by his former employers.
A return to Ferrari might have been a little awkward, given the way they left off, but it was by no means impossible. In the end Kimi had no intention of going elsewhere. He’s comfortable at Lotus, and is also aware that as one of the team’s biggest assets, he can help it to survive tough economic times. He’s always been loyal to those who support him.
“This team has done very well, if you look where they were last year and the year before. I think they definitely have the people and the hunger and the passion to push forward, and I don’t see why it shouldn’t improve for next year.
“OK, we don’t have the budget or as many people as the biggest teams to improve, but we’re still doing a good job, and I think they are going to push very hard next year. I don’t see any reason why it should be worse, so it’s up to us to build a good car again and be up there.”
He’s had an extraordinary career, and the transition from his mercurial arrival in F1 with Sauber in 2001 to his current status as elder statesman has been a remarkable journey. And at 33, it’s not over yet. Does he have any regrets about how it turned out?
“No, I’ve been doing my things like I want. And I’m happy. If I feel like I’m not happy, or I want to do something else, I will do it. I don’t see any reason to spend all your life and all your career doing something you don’t like. I have no regrets. I won the championship. If I won more, it’s nice, but it’s not everything.
“It’s something I enjoy doing, and it’s been part of my work, but there’s an awful lot more interesting things in life than just F1. If something suddenly happens and I’m not in F1, it’s OK, it’s not like I’m desperate for F1. There are plenty of things in life that are good fun. I’m happy how things have gone. Maybe I’ll go back to rallying, or do nothing. I don’t know.”
Inside team Kimi
Räikkönen’s management knew his comeback would be a success
Nobody knows Kimi better than Steve Robertson, the former F3 racer and Indy Lights champion who with his father Dave has served as his manager for many years. Even after their contract expired Kimi remained loyal to the Robeffsons, asking them to negotiate his Lotus deal.
“I spoke to him after the first test in the old car” says Robertson. “He said, ‘After two laps it felt slow to me. As soon as he said that I knew it was OK. He doesn’t overcomplicate things, everybody knows that. I think some drivers can be over analytical about tyres and so on. With Kimi it’s, ‘They’re black, they’re round, I can drive.’ He’s got a natural feel for it, he was born to drive an F1 car.
“In Abu Dhabi he showed why he’s been a World Champion. He brings it home, he knows when to go for a move, and when not to go for it, and that’s the difference between taking a real pro and a young guy with money. He brings home the points, which at the end of the day brings in the money. Kimi can deliver when he’s under pressure, and that’s what he’s proved on so many occasions.
“He’s happy at Lotus. Eric Boullier summed him up: he’s a wild animal sometimes, and you’ve got to let him roam free.”