Kimi: is he worth it?

Here we are still talking about Kimi Räikkönen’s Formula 1 career in the present tense, a decade-and-a-half since he was a bare rookie fresh out of just one season of car racing, in Formula Renault. He proved all the doubters wrong back then – recall, his Super Licence was only provisional until he ‘proved his competence’ – by taking points for Sauber on his debut. But can he prove them wrong all over again? Into his third disappointing season with Ferrari second time around, can he justify the Scuderia having extended his contract for another year to the end of 2017?

First of all, let’s put that extension into a clearer perspective; Ferrari’s long-term view of the driver market has it looking for the availability of Lewis Hamilton, Max Verstappen or Daniel Ricciardo, all committed to their current teams until at least the end of 2018. On the assumption that Sebastian Vettel will remain with the Scuderia, any recruitment of a driver to replace Räikkönen could therefore have been for just two seasons. Yet every one of the candidates – Sergio Perez, Valtteri Bottas, Carlos Sainz, Romain Grosjean, Nico Hulkenberg – had a contract with their existing teams that would have required Ferrari to buy out. Why buy out an existing contract of a driver who would only be there to keep the seat warm? It was being considered regardless because Räikkönen’s form at that time was so poor. “Kimi just needs to prove he’s worthy of a new contract,” Sergio Marchionne said around Monaco/Canada time, the absolute nadir of Kimi’s season. All he needed to do was produce a few respectable performances – well within his grasp – and the drive was his for another year. He duly did so and the extension was announced on the eve of the British Grand Prix. For Ferrari it made much more sense to retain the known quantity of Kimi, especially so when it met with the approval of Vettel. 

Secondly, let’s be clear: Ferrari knows full well it is not contracting Räikkönen at the peak of his powers. The Kimi Räikkönen with the newly extended contract is not the ace of old. The Räikkönen that McLaren employed for five seasons was a stone cold virtuoso, a truly great F1 driver. With just slightly better reliability from the cars, he could quite conceivably have taken two world titles during that time – and they’d have been richly deserved. He was a devastating blend of calm and searing pace, totally impervious, relentlessly fast, his fantastic feel and balance evident in his breathtaking speed through the fast corners. In slow turns he’d banish the hated understeer by exquisitely-executed flicks and catches. Even on the days when the car wasn’t quite there he’d regularly amaze the McLaren engineers with what he could conjure from it. He was, for a time – between 2003 and ’06 – quite possibly F1’s fastest driver. I’ve watched him trackside from corners all over the world throughout his career and occasionally back then, two or three times per season maybe, he’d leave you overwhelmed at what you’d just witnessed. 

One of those days was at the Hungaroring’s Turn Four in 2005. Here’s how I recalled it at the time: “He’s still flat in seventh, virtually on top of the blind exit corner now, then off the gas for a second, the McLaren’s unique overrun cylinder cut making it briefly eerily quiet. His commitment on turn-in is breathtaking; it can’t be done on anything more than faith. Blind exit, blind faith. Once he’s committed to it – going down two gears between turn-in and apex before checking out – he’s just along for the ride, the car angrily twitching through there at obscene speed. It’s like he’s now remote from the car, briefly riding above it, cannot hope to keep up with its every movement when it’s in this state. He’s somehow suspended in time and place, in some sort of tunnel, destiny no longer in his hands. So just wait there, let it buck, have faith in its downforce to ground those Michelins deep into the track’s very pores, cornering and accelerating – for he left his right foot flat to the floor before checking out. A second or so later, he’s emerged out the other side and can return from suspended animation, become part of the machine again, rejoining the physical world, taking charge of his destiny once more.”

He never looks like that now, has but rarely looked like that since joining Ferrari first time around – at Magny-Cours 2008 perhaps or through Pouhon at Spa occasionally. But the days of him routinely showing up and delivering raw, on-the-limit laps on demand are over. Even when he was finally winning the world championship in 2007, his first season at Ferrari, he was on the slide. The numbers back this up (see graphic). Having been quicker than his McLaren team-mates (Coulthard and Montoya) roughly 70 per cent of the time, he was only 50/50 in qualifying speed with Felipe Massa in that first season at Ferrari, and subsequently fell further. Into 2008 Massa aced him 6-2 in both pole positions and victories – and into the last few races of that season it was Räikkönen playing support to Massa’s title challenge rather than the other way around. In the 2009 season up to Massa’s Hungary accident, Räikkönen was down on his team-mate a disastrous 79 per cent of the time. 

The contrast between Kimi’s still-devastating form in his final year at McLaren – enough to finish off the F1 career of Montoya – to his difficulty establishing any significant superiority over Massa just one year later seemed very much to do with F1’s change from tyre war rubber to a conservative hard compound standard supply from 2007. Although the 2006 McLaren MP4-21 was an understeerer, the high grip of the tyres allowed him to deal with it much more effectively than Montoya. But a year on, whenever there was a high speed approach to a slow corner he would consistently lose out to Massa in the way he dealt with the F2007’s understeer. Whereas Felipe would charge in regardless, braking later and simply winding on more lock, Kimi would back off earlier in response to the lack of front grip and brake more lightly. And the lap time would bleed away right there. It was as if without that feeling of high-grip planted security that the Michelins provided even as the aero loads bled off, his sensitivity was hindering rather than helping.   

We know this because back in 2008 Ferrari made available to me telemetry from three circuits comparing the two drivers. Through the fast sweeps of Maggotts/Becketts, Spa’s Pouhon and Istanbul’s Turn Eight Räikkönen remained supreme. He came off the throttle less, his minimum speeds were higher, his throttle application earlier and smoother, his confidence with high-speed snaps of oversteer greater. But unfortunately for him, much more of the F1 calendar’s total lap time comes from slow corners – where Massa was invariably faster. Even more unfortunately, the understeer trait he particularly dislikes is more prevalent in any F1 car on these sorts of corners – and is yet more acute on new tyres over a single lap of qualifying. He was clearly a more subtle, sensitive driver than Massa. But Felipe’s strengths were more suited to the way F1 developed and has continued to develop. 

In his early days Räikkönen spent many hours at the wheel alongside renowned driver coach Rob Wilson, who remains a big fan, saying. “He is a very elegant driver, at his best on natural tracks with fast, sweeping lines like Spa, Interlagos, Suzuka, Silverstone where his finesse can give him an advantage. He has a fantastic feel for how his inputs effect the dynamic weight of each corner of the car – as much with his feet as his hands. That really helped him in the tyre war era, I think. You could use a marginal tyre, benefit from its speed but still make it last. There are no spikes in his inputs, very much in contrast to Felipe Massa, but even compared to Sebastian Vettel his inputs are nicer. 

“What he will not do – and it’s almost an aesthetic choice – is flick the car in the slow stuff and bounce it over kerbs, jarring his insides. He’s a bit clumsy when he tries.” 

Yet in his earlier days, pre-2005 before he got his hands on what was for him the perfect car, the MP4-20, flick and slide was a regular part of Kimi’s game. “Yes,” agrees Wilson. “I remember from sitting alongside him in the McLaren days how he would max out the exit kerbs, kicking up dust beyond. But now it’s as if that offends him. He’s just attuned himself differently as he’s got more experienced. Back then it was desperately important to him that he force the lap time, however it had to come. Now he just waits for the nice tracks and the good car. It’s like the difference between Fittipaldi in 1972 and ’75 or Jacky Ickx 1970 to ’74.” 

Kimi’s 2012-13 return to F1 with Lotus after his two-year rallying sabbatical is recalled as triumphant, adding two more Grand Prix wins to his CV and racking up so many podiums he came close to bankrupting the team (so generous was his points bonus). In reality, those Lotuses were superbly suited to the limitations of the Pirellis, their unique suspension giving the rubber an easier time even than ostensibly faster cars (and allowing Kimi to smother those hated kerbs). In addition, his team-mate Romain Grosjean was initially faster before a sequence of accidents put his career in jeopardy, giving him a confidence crisis. Into the second half of ’13, helped by a tougher tyre, Grosjean again became the team’s cutting edge. It was not possible to find anyone at Enstone prepared to say that in Kimi 2012/13 vintage they had a driver worthy of the same level of adulation they still held for Schumacher, Alonso and Kubica. That particular set of circumstances almost certainly flattered Räikkönen – probably not a popular view among the army of Kimi fans, but not a unique one either. “I believe that if Robert Kubica had still been there for those cars, he would have won at least one world title,” said Mercedes’ Toto Wolff in 2013. 

Give Räikkönen a car with a poor front end, combine it with the hard compounds of the Pirelli era, put him on a track with a lot of slow corners and – even worse – lots of the severe kerbs that have become increasingly common in the past five years, and he can look awful. In there is summarised his 2014 season alongside Fernando Alonso, a driver who will willingly monster anything standing between him and a fast time. As the Ferrari became less bad these past couple of seasons, so Kimi’s performances became more respectable and now that there’s an air of crisis within the team, so maybe his complete detachment is coming into its own, as he’s been faring better recently than Vettel.  

Kimi has always refused to play the game, remained true to his own values and shunned the glitter, the plaudits, as unmoved by compliments as by criticism. As Wilson suggests, it perhaps used to be more important to him than it is now – and he was perhaps better suited to it than he is now, when the cars and tyres could be fine-tuned to what he wanted from a car rather than having to tune himself around a lot of specified points. He refuses to play that game too, almost wilfully. The mega-money arrived for Kimi at much the same time as F1 was dumbing itself down and that probably helped him shrug his shoulders and remain passive. 

Ferrari was disappointed first time around that it hadn’t recruited the team-leading Schumacher replacement it believed it was signing, someone to lead the team and make it sing. But second time around it knew what it was getting – even if he was only signed in 2014 as security against Alonso leaving. With another driver doing the team leading, it loves the way Kimi works, the lack of waves or politics – and in its current predicament that might be worth a lot. And on a good day, when everything happens to align, he can still do a fair impression of the driver that used to light up the tracks.