All things being equal, Fernando Alonso will be a Ferrari driver in 2011, and the word I hear from Italy is that, contracts or no, if Kimi Räikkonen has another season like the one just past, that could be brought forward.
On the surface, at least, Ferrari is standing by its wayward superstar, saying that, yes, there were problems last season, and Kimi was indeed not the driver he can, and should, be. But that was then and this is now, and Ferrari is sure he can regain the sort of form he showed in the second half of 2007, when he came on ever stronger, and nicked the World Championship at the last race. Andrea Stella, favoured by Räikkonen, is to replace Chris Dyer as his race engineer.
Kimi says he has put the ’08 season behind him, and is full of resolve for the coming campaign. As I write, he has yet to drive Ferrari’s new F60, but there are hopes that this car – totally new, of course, given the radical rule changes introduced for ’09 – will very much suit his driving style. He has always had a distaste for understeer, and the new cars, with far less downforce and slick tyres, are expected to be way looser than their predecessors.
Few doubt that Räikkonen can regain the sort of form, often touched by genius, which he sometimes showed in the past, but the question is whether or not he will choose to. Many times, after all, he has stressed that he has no wish to race indefinitely, and, as the highest-paid driver in the history of this sport, he already has enough money for several lifetimes. Fundamentally, for all his monosyllabic dourness before a microphone, Kimi is a man who likes to have fun, and the demands, physical and otherwise, of being a contemporary Grand Prix driver do not easily sit with that.
On one occasion last year, after yet another lacklustre performance by Räikkonen, Luca di Montezemolo was moved to remark that it hadn’t been Kimi, but his twin brother, in the car that day. At the Ferrari ski camp in January Räikkonen remarked that he had sent his twin brother back to Finland, and upon hearing that di Montezemolo responded straightforwardly: “He did right – it was time to do that!”
By any standards, Kimi redefines insouciance in a racing driver. In light of their relative performances last season, Felipe Massa was granted the honour of driving the F60 for the first time, and after a single exploratory lap brought the car in, everyone agog to know of his first impressions. Except Räikkonen, who, I’m told, was asleep in the car park at the time.
In an era of sporting automatons, it is easy to find Kimi’s attitude refreshing and attractive, but it will come as no surprise that this response does not necessarily extend to those who work with him.
Ever since Alonso’s premature split with McLaren, at the end of 2007, many had regarded his eventual move to Ferrari as no more than inevitable, although di Montezemolo – the man responsible for bringing Räikkonen to Maranello in the first place – repeatedly stressed that he was entirely happy with the drivers he had.
There are no secrets in motor racing, however, and last July Alonso was spotted in Lugano, wherein lies the office of Henry Peter, Ferrari’s long-time lawyer. My understanding is that Fernando has signed a three-year contract, beginning in 2011 – or, as I said, perhaps a year earlier than that if Räikkonen again falls short this season. Indeed, there are many in the team who would like him there right now…