Last autumn I wrote a newsletter on the subject of Kimi Räikkönen, and his possible return to Formula 1, following two years of rallying with Citroën – a project which did not, it must be said, live up to the expectations of either side.
At the time it was known that Räikkönen was involved in talks with Williams, and my feeling was that neither side had a great deal to lose by striking a deal. In terms of competitiveness, Frank’s team was at an all-time low, and indeed finished the 2011 season with only five points. Bad by any standards, and not less than catastrophic for an outfit which once had won constructors’ titles, and ferried seven drivers to the drivers’ World Championship.
FW is nothing if not a survivor, however, and we knew that major changes, in terms of both personnel and operations, were underway. As well as that, were Räikkönen to go there, it would be because he truly wanted to be back in F1 again. In his Ferrari days he was reputedly the highest paid driver in the sport’s history, but it was obvious there could have been no question of telephone number retainers in a move to Williams. While there have been occasions when Frank has overpaid drivers – the name of Ralf Schumacher springs instantly to mind – by and large that has not been the Williams way, let alone in a financial climate as dire as the one confronting us all these days.
As well as that, of course, it was less easy to estimate Räikkönen’s value than had once been the case. In 2006 Ferrari signed the driver they believed at the time to be the out-and-out quickest on the planet, and there was no doubt that on those days at McLaren when he was in the mood, touched by genius, few could live with him.
Five years on, though, the perception of Kimi had changed. After narrowly winning the World Championship in his first season with Ferrari, he did not build on that thereafter, but went rather off the boil, so that it was to Felipe Massa that the team increasingly looked. In Massa’s absence, following his accident in Hungary in 2009, Räikkönen’s performances conspicuously improved, but already Luca di Montezemolo had decided to call time on him, a year before the expiry of his contract, so as to bring in Fernando Alonso as soon as possible.
Kimi discussed a return to McLaren – now, with Martin Whitmarsh running things rather than Ron Dennis, something he was prepared to consider – but in the end nothing came of it. McLaren signed Jenson Button, and Räikkönen went off to the WRC, apparently without a backward glance.
Initially Kimi appeared to relish the more laidback world of rallying, and in an interview at one point stressed how much he wasn’t missing F1, with all its glitz and hangers-on. No one really doubted him at the time, but as the months went by – and the results didn’t come – he began to realise how much he needed the wheel-to-wheel aspect of racing: competing against the clock simply wasn’t the same thing. At the same time it looked ever more likely that he didn’t truly have a future in rallying, and his thoughts turned increasingly to the environment in which he had often excelled.
In the end the talks between Räikkönen and Williams’ Adam Parr came to nothing, but Kimi’s thoughts remained with F1, and a deal with Lotus (nee Renault) was quickly struck. Five races into the season, he sits fourth in the World Championship standings, and if he hasn’t won a race yet, he has been in the vicinity more than once, and made the podium in both Bahrain and Spain.
What’s more, he looks – as much as Kimi ever can, anyway – like a happy man again, and those close to him say they have never known him so content. In today’s tightly-controlled F1 world, he has always loathed the peripheral aspects of his job, the public appearances and the like, and at Lotus they have been smart enough to recognise that, to keep his PR commitments to a minimum. However, such as they are, I’m told, he has carried them out extremely well – you play ball with me, and I’ll play ball with you…
Jackie Stewart, for some time a consultant to Genii, has clearly played a considerable role in pulling all this together. Indeed, when Robert Kubica had his dreadful rallying accident, and the team was suddenly confronted with the need to find a driver, Stewart raised the question of Räikkönen with owner Gerard Lopez. Nothing could be done at the time – Kimi was contracted to Citroën, and anyway seemed to have had enough of F1 – but by the end of last year the situation had changed, and JYS was again strongly behind a move to sign him.
“I thought,” he says, “that Räikkönen was a different animal altogether from Schumacher, and I genuinely believed that he could plug back in, and deliver, very quickly…”
Räikkönen no longer has a manager, and does all his deals himself. This one was quickly signed off, and from the very beginning of testing, in February, it was apparent that, while the cars and particularly tyres had changed considerably during his two years away, he had lost nothing.
“Of course I’m not directly involved in the running of it,” says Stewart, “but this is a very good team now – good technical director, good chief designer, good factory. As for Kimi, I’m pleased about him in every respect – he’s trained hard, he’s fit, and he’s done a very good job from the start. Romain Grosjean is doing the same – he can also win a Grand Prix this year – and it’s a great situation for both of them, because they’re both very competitive, and they drive each other.
“Kimi is Kimi, and fundamentally you’re never going to change him! Having said that, there have been no dramas, no arrogance or anything like that, and I must say he seems to be enjoying his racing more than I can ever remember. I think he’s been driving beautifully…”
So he has. As I write, Lotus may not have won a Grand Prix yet, but in a wildly unpredictable season have probably been the most consistent team of all. The Kimster is back where he belongs, in the thick of it.