Kimi Räikkönen: No regrets

No other Formula 1 driver has competed in as many races as Kimi Räikkönen – and the 41-year-old, now in his third season with Alfa Romeo, gives no indication that he’s ready to stop. Adam Cooper caught up with the 2007 world champion to talk about his years at McLaren, Ferrari and Lotus, and why, despite the chicanery, frustration and pressure, he wouldn’t change a thing

Kimi Raikkonen in 2001

Sauber’s youthful driver at Monaco in 2001. Iceman has a contract with Alfa until the end of this season

Patrick Hertzog/AFP via Getty Images

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At the Eifel GP last year Kimi Räikkönen logged his 323rd grand prix start, breaking the record held by Rubens Barrichello. Twenty years after his rookie season the Finn will continue to extend that total in 2021, and with his 42nd birthday in October, he shows no signs of intending to stop.

He might not be racing for wins these days, but the 2007 world champion remains a firm fan favourite around the world. His deadpan ‘Iceman’ persona has always appealed, as has the humour inherent in his colourful radio conversations with the pitwall.

On his second marriage and with two young children, Räikkönen long ago reined in his partying lifestyle. But at heart he remains the same straightforward character he was when he turned the perceived wisdom about young drivers on its head, someone who above all else values loyalty and honesty in the people with whom he deals.

It was in the late summer of 2000 that Kimi’s ambitious management team of David and Steve Robertson began looking for F1 opportunities for their man, who was then dominating the Formula Renault scene.

Kimi Raikkonen marks 20 years since he arrived in the F1 paddockThe father/son combo had gained some kudos in the paddock by helping Jenson Button into Williams that year, and team boss Peter Sauber was intrigued by their sales pitch.

Räikkönen was in Finland enjoying a beer with a mate when the Robertsons called to say that he would be testing for Sauber at Mugello. He had never even been to a grand prix.

“Obviously things happened very quickly,” he recalls. “I didn’t know how the cars were, and I’d never seen an F1 car live. I couldn’t really prepare – it was go there and see what happens. It was rough physically for the neck, and with no power steering. But even if I had a month or two, I don’t think it would have helped.

“I had two days, so it was not like I had to rush things. The first day everything kind of happens too quickly. I think your brain is not really used to it, or something.

“And then after the first day, sleeping overnight, things just slow down and become more normal. But it wasn’t like, ‘If I do well now it’s going to be a chance to do F1’ – at least nobody told me. It was just a test. So I did what I could, and it went okay.”

It was more than okay. An intrigued Michael Schumacher visited the Swiss team’s motorhome to find out more about the driver he’d observed on track, while Sauber and his colleagues were so enthused that Räikkönen became a candidate for a 2001 race seat, and a second Mugello test was quickly arranged.

There were two major issues. Firstly main sponsor Red Bull was keen to promote Dietrich Mateschitz’s protégé Enrique Bernoldi from F3000, and secondly the chances of securing a superlicence for someone who hadn’t even raced an F3 car appeared to be slim.

Kimi Raikkonen in Formula Renault

In 2000, Räikkönen won seven out of 10 Formula Renault races

“The second test, it was me and Bernoldi, and then things were more like, ‘Maybe there is a chance,’” Kimi recalls. “But I never felt, ‘I need to do well now, or I can’t race.’

“And then after that there were all these big discussions they had with Red Bull, and the superlicence issue. It took forever before it was certain that it would happen.”

After the FIA observed a later test at Jerez, Räikkönen was granted a provisional superlicence for the early races, and a lot of eyes were on him in Australia. He barely put a foot wrong on the way to seventh place, subsequently moving up to sixth when Olivier Panis received a time penalty.

“Yes, it was the first race and all these things were new, but when it comes to driving it was already much more normal, because I had a lot more time to get ready comparing to the first test. In the end the race was no different from Formula Renault. It’s the race.”

Kimi Raikkonen in Sauber race suit in 2001

Raikkonen joined Sauber in 2001

Eric Vargiolu/DPPI

He proved to be a fast learner, taking fourth places in Austria and Canada, and fifth at Silverstone. “In those days it was only the top six that got points, so it was more difficult. Also there were more things happening, the racing was different in those times. We had pretty good speed as a team in most of the races.”

His performances had not gone unnoticed, and among those paying attention was Ron Dennis. At a party on the Sunday night of the Montreal race Räikkönen chatted with the McLaren boss and his countryman Mika Häkkinen, who was destined to retire that year. In the weeks that followed, discussions became more formal.

“I don’t know when it exactly started, but we met there and talked and had some drinks. And then it went quite quickly. I had a contract with Sauber, but then they sorted it out, and in the end everybody was happy.”

From the archive

McLaren had to buy Räikkönen out of a three-year deal, providing Sauber with the funds with which to construct a wind tunnel.

In only his second year out of Formula Renault, Kimi was to replace Häkkinen, a two-time world champion, and a national hero in Finland. The pressure was immense.

“I never really thought about it,” he insists. “That helps a lot. If you think certain things too much, it gets difficult. Obviously, it was different, it was a bigger team. The first year in most of the races we had issues, but it was great to get to know the team.”

“He pulled off a feat worthy of his hero James Hunt to steal the title”

In 2002 Ferrari was utterly dominant, and while Räikkönen logged several podiums, he had to wait until Malaysia the following year for his first victory. A string of second places kept him in the 2003 title hunt, and after some frustrating retirements he ultimately lost out to Michael Schumacher.

“Obviously there were errors. How much was it, two points or something in the end? If you take any of those or the issues that we had with the car, we could have won easily. But then we only won one race, and I don’t know how many wins Michael had. We were definitely not the fastest, but we were more consistent. I was doing well with what we had, and we were up there all the time.”

Kimi Raikkonen in the 2003 Malaysian Grand Prix

A first win came here in the Malaysian GP in 2003 for McLaren

Mark Thompson/Getty Images

In 2005 Räikkönen went through a similar experience. He won seven races, but lost the title to Fernando Alonso.

“We would have had plenty of wins if it didn’t keep breaking down that often. For sure that year was more painful, because we had the speed. But it’s racing, you have to finish.”

Despite his occasionally wild exploits off-track Kimi got on well with Dennis: “People always talked that we had this and that, and for sure we had some disagreements, but outside of that we always had a good relationship. He was not a fan of some things that I did, but it wasn’t like after that we had a bad relationship. We had some arguments about certain things, but that’s how it goes.”

For 2007 Räikkönen moved to Ferrari, replacing the retiring Schumacher. He won first time out in Australia, and was the main opposition to Alonso and rookie Lewis Hamilton at McLaren. However, switching from Michelins to that year’s control Bridgestones wasn’t easy.

“I noticed straight away in testing that the cars were different, from McLaren to Ferrari, but also the tyres. It took a long time to figure it out. We won the first race pretty easily, but at that circuit the issues I was struggling with weren’t affecting me that much.

“We had some retirements, and then the further we went, the better it started to get. We had a very fast car, and we managed to maximise a lot of things. Probably the crucial race was in Fuji. We got some crazy penalty because we changed the tyres, and we were put on the back. At least I managed to be in third place. Then there were a couple of races to go, and we did well in those ones…”

In fact he pulled off a feat worthy of his hero James Hunt, coming from 17 points behind (10 points for a win) to steal the title from Alonso and Hamilton with wins in the last two events.

Kimi Raikkonen celebrates winning the 2007 Brazilian Grand Prix and the World Championship

Victory at São Paulo in 2007 gave Räikkönen his sole F1 title

Darren Heath/Getty Images

In 2008, Massa seized the initiative at Ferrari, and Räikkönen found himself supporting the Brazilian’s title campaign. Then at the end of 2009 he was caught in a typical Ferrari three-into-two scenario as he was eased out to make way for Fernando Alonso.

Was that frustrating given that he’d earned the team a world championship just a couple of years earlier?

“No, not really. I think what I was more disappointed about was how they handled it, because I found out long before what they had done. Then when I spoke to the big bosses, they were not saying it, they were saying completely the opposite, even though I knew. ‘We promise you it’s not happening.’

From the archive

“I was already fed up with all the politics and things like that, so leaving wasn’t really like a big thing for me. I was happy to do something else. It was more, ‘Why not be honest?’ Because it’s not going to change the end result.”

He still had a contract, so Ferrari paid Räikkönen not to race in 2010, and signing for a rival would have voided that arrangement. He opted instead for a switch to the World Rally Championship, agreeing a deal with Citroën. He faced a steep learning curve.

“I never expected to do that well, because I had zero experience. I wanted to see if I even could do it. I enjoyed it, my best finish was fifth or something in Turkey [in 2010]. I don’t think the driving itself is so difficult, it’s more about making good pace notes and then to be able listen to them and not think. It takes a long time. The other guys have a lot of experience. Some days we did better, others we ended up off the road, but that’s part of rallying.”

Räikkönen insists that an F1 return was not on his agenda. “I had zero thinking about it. The first year Lotus called and I said, ‘No, not interested.’ Somehow it leaked to the newspapers and I was even more disappointed. We said, ‘Let’s keep it quiet,’ but it leaked from their side, so I was, ‘Here we go again.’”

In 2011 Räikkönen campaigned his own Citroën in the WRC under the Ice 1 Racing banner. He also dabbled in NASCAR, contesting a truck race and a second division Nationwide event. Ironically, rather than kickstart a new career in the USA, that experience nudged him back towards F1.

img_101-6.jpg

The F1 hiatus years: NASCAR in 2011 and WRC in 2010

“When I went to NASCAR I enjoyed racing against people, so then I thought I wanted to do some racing again. I liked the NASCAR story, but to do the full season, it’s too many races.

“So then I thought, ‘Maybe…?’ I called Steve and Dave and said, ‘Let’s find something [in F1] and see what is out there.’ First I talked with Williams and visited them, and then we went back to Lotus. And it happened quickly.”

“Many didn’t expect Lotus to do well but we surprised a lot of people”

Räikkönen put his frustration over the previous year’s leak behind to sign for the Enstone team for 2012. He proved to be a pointsscoring machine, and seven podium finishes, including a win in Abu Dhabi, propelled him to third in the World Championship.

The following year he won the season opener in Melbourne and followed up with six second places. However, by the end of 2013 he had fallen out with the Lotus owners as the money ran out and his salary wasn’t paid.

“I don’t think many expected us to do well but then we surprised a lot of people. The second year was even stronger, but they changed the tyres suddenly, halfway through the season. Those other [previous] tyres were so good for us; our car worked well with them.

“Everything then went to s**t afterwards because of the money issues. It was a shame. It was a great group, the team and everything, and then it got let down by people who were not very honest.”

Kimi Raikkonen

Against the odds Räikkönen returned to Ferrari in 2014, initially alongside Alonso. In 2015 the Spaniard went to McLaren and Sebastian Vettel arrived. Räikkönen enjoyed a good relationship with the four-times world champion, and the pair flew to races together from Switzerland. Kimi slipped into a supporting role. “I knew what was going to be awaiting me, so I wasn’t really surprised. I would still do the same thing, no regrets. It was fun. Obviously, you want to have better results, wherever you are, but that’s how it is.”

Overshadowed by Vettel, Räikkönen regularly logged podiums and points, and in 2018 he won the US GP – the only success of his second Ferrari stint. By then he was once again surplus to requirements at Maranello as the team promoted its protégé Charles Leclerc.

Many observers assumed that Räikkönen, already 39, would simply call it quits. The man himself had other ideas. Encouraged by his close friend Beat Zehnder, Sauber’s long-time team manager, he instead took a look at the seat vacated by Leclerc.

Much had changed in Hinwil since his rookie year, but going to a midfield outfit with ambitious new owners and Alfa Romeo support had appeal, as did the symmetry of returning to where he started.

Räikkönen did his usual solid job in 2019, scoring points in his first four outings and earning fourth at Interlagos. The 2020 season was less satisfying as Ferrari let down its customer teams, and budget constraints forced Alfa Romeo to trim spending on development.

Kimi Raikkonen in the 2021 Bahrain Grand Prix

The Finn finished 11th in the new Alfa Romeo-Ferrari C41 at Bahrain on March 28

Florent Gooden / DPPI

“I think the first year here we did actually not too bad, although we were not strong the last part of the year, apart from Brazil. Last year obviously for many reasons it was not that great for any Ferrari-engined cars.

“I wish last year could have been more like the previous year, but it was out of our hands. Then with all the Covid things, the small teams struggle more. Hopefully this year we can be up there, or least more regularly in the points, but who knows? There are rule changes and many other things that can affect it.”

Inevitably Räikkönen faces endless questions about his motivation. The first race of 2021 left him just outside the points, but the fact that he’s still willing to get his body into shape each winter says a lot. “I don’t know if I train harder or not. I think in many ways you train smarter, because you couldn’t do the same as maybe 10 years ago. It’s part of the job.

“I enjoy the races, not the other things! But it’s always been the same. For sure there is a time when I miss the family, and I always valued my time outside F1, and that hasn’t changed. And it becomes more and more with the kids growing up. Last year worked out okay, so let’s see this year, and what the future brings.”

Two decades on, how would he sum up his rollercoaster career?

“I think I’ve been in good teams, obviously some years better than others, but I don’t have any regrets. I wouldn’t change anything.”