In recent days, following his visit to the Williams HQ, there has been considerable speculation about the possibility of a Formula 1 return for Kimi Räikkönen. Do we take the stories seriously or not? The evidence is that we should.
Räikkönen is such a maverick that probably nothing about him should surprise us by now, but I’ll confess to being at least a little taken aback when I learned of his visit to Grove. His two-year excursion into the World Rally Championship has been rather less successful than anticipated, and it didn’t amaze me when he briefly dabbled with NASCAR earlier this year.
A return to F1 though… that was a different matter, not least because as soon as he had swapped Ferrari overalls for Citroen, Kimi missed no opportunity to stress how much he wasn’t missing F1, how much better suited to his personality was this new and more relaxed world of rallying.
Perhaps if his outings in the Citroen had gone better Räikkönen might now be contemplating a long-term future in the WRC, but the company’s motor sport director Olivier Quesnel recently made clear his disappointment in the way things had turned out, and now Kimi must find something new. His couple of NASCAR outings amused him, but when a permanent move there was mooted some gently pointed out that they couldn’t see him committing to a 36-race schedule..
Räikkönen himself has often said that he was born too late, that his personality would have been better suited to the Formula 1 of 30 and 40 years ago. Not by chance did he once use the pseudonym ‘James Hunt’ when putting in an entry for a powerboat race. As party animals, the two had much in common, and undoubtedly Kimi would have thrived in a more relaxed F1 than the one we have today. Lewis Hamilton may have complained of late about the PR demands made of him by McLaren, but Räikkönen’s distaste for such work was on another level altogether, and it’s difficult to imagine that his outlook has changed – or will change.
It is said that Kimi’s Ferrari contract was the most lucrative in motor racing history, but if the team was looking for another motivator, in the Schumacher mould, it was to be sadly disappointed. While he was liked by Ferrari personnel, he rarely visited Maranello, and never became part of the fabric of the team. As always with Räikkönen, there were flashes of brilliance – even genius – but they didn’t come as frequently as in his McLaren days, and too often he was outshone by Felipe Massa, a man earning way, way less, yet one who gave his heart and soul to Ferrari in a way Kimi never did.
It was interesting that after Massa’s accident in Hungary in August 2009 (which ended his season) Räikkönen, partnered now by such as Badoer and Fisichella, stepped up to the plate in Felipe’s absence and turned in far better performances than earlier in the year. It was, however, too little too late for by now Luca di Montezemolo – at whose instigation Kimi had gone to Ferrari in the first place thus ending Schumacher’s Maranello career – had concluded he could wait no longer to get Fernando Alonso aboard. Already contracted for 2011, Alonso went there a year early, while Ferrari paid off the final season of Räikkönen’s contract.
When Kimi left F1 for the WRC it was, as I said, apparently without a backward glance so now, if he is seriously contemplating a return, why so? If the rallying had been successful would he be thinking that way? If he hasn’t missed the ambience of the F1 paddock, has he missed driving a Grand Prix car? His former McLaren team mate, Juan Pablo Montoya after all, has admitted that while he prefers the freer atmosphere of NASCAR and savours the non-stop racing, for sheer visceral driving pleasure there is nothing like a Grand Prix car.
If Räikkönen returns, and with Williams, the sword is double-edged for both parties. The team’s fortunes after all are at an all-time low point, with only five points scored in this year’s World Championship. As for Kimi, he is apparently in limbo. When he parted from Ferrari two years ago no comparable F1 opportunity presented itself – and none does now.
For the last couple of years the Williams team leader has been Rubens Barrichello (who lest we forget won two Grands Prix for Brawn as recently as 2009). Sam Michael, who leaves Williams for McLaren for 2012, has said that Barrichello is the best driver he has ever worked with and there is no doubt that his experience and expertise with feedback has been hugely beneficial to the team, perhaps more so last year than this. Rubens is keen to carry on for a 20th F1 season, but there have been signs this summer past that, faced with yet another middling car, his motivation has finally wilted a little.
Barrichello is not cheap, certainly in Williams terms, and is said also to be less than enthusiastic about PR commitments. Therefore, while Pastor Maldonado – with his Venezuelan petro-dollars – will assuredly stay for 2012, Rubens’s future with Williams is in considerable doubt.
Will a deal with Räikkönen therefore be done? Kimi will appreciate that lofty fiscal requirements are out of the question – but he will have known that before ever he made his factory visit. And he will know too that an ultra-competitive car – such as he was accustomed to with McLaren and Ferrari – is unlikely to materialise.
As for Williams, they know all about the free spirit that is Kimi and everything that entails. They know too that he’s not the greatest test driver and that his motivation is not always what it should be. “Race to race,” a McLaren man said, “we never knew which Kimi we were going to get…”
On the other hand, at their best, Williams has been one of the great teams and Räikkönen one of the great drivers. Back in 1976 Mario Andretti finally committed himself to fulltime F1, with Lotus, but not too many eyebrows were raised. “I had a talk with Colin (Chapman),” Mario said. “I guess we were both experiencing some kind of low in our careers – but it wasn’t just that misery loves company. I couldn’t see Colin staying down indefinitely, and he thought the same about me. ‘Let’s see if we can help each other’ we decided, and I guess it worked out…”
Very well, that was then, and this is now, but maybe – just maybe – Williams and Räikkönen might work out too. Kimi after all, might appreciate a less pressured F1 environment, might savour the thought of trying to tweak the noses of McLaren and Ferrari, while at Williams they would surely relish the prospect of having one of his talent aboard again.
Both team and driver have delivered in the past, that much is beyond a doubt. Whether or not they can do so again in the future is more open to question, but it seems to me that at this point neither side has too much to lose by giving it a try…