Räikkönen: a long wait for victory


Did Kimi Räikkönen enjoy his most recent Grand Prix victory more than his previous 18? He deserved to.

It’s so difficult to tell. I thought I spotted a couple of celebratory fist-pumps as he crossed the finish line, but by the time his engineer had transmitted an informative yeehaa/woohoo, ‘Iceman’ had frozen over again: “Thanks, guys. Great job.”

Then, after chance to reflect: “It’s one win for me but for them [the team] it’s a much bigger thing.”

He is a man of few words – short ones at that – and even fewer mistakes. His Enstone crew was understandably nervy and chatty having not won since the 2008 Japanese GP – some 75 races ago – but Formula 1’s most self-sufficient driver was in control.

And. He. Told. Them. So.

Lotus-Renault boss Eric Boullier has said that he looked Kimi in the eye before employing him. Beneath the frosty exterior, behind that cool, calculating racing brain, he spotted the glowing coals, the unspoken deep-seated desire to return – and to win. Take a bow, Monsieur Boullier.

Despite Räikkönen’s two lost seasons spent proving how good Sébastien Loeb is and that NASCAR, even amid its lower divisions, is trickier than it looks, he has returned as though never away. Yet 60 GPs, of which he has contested 22, have passed since his almost inevitable victory at Spa – always a sure sign of class – in 2009.

In fact, he’s been better than that. Better than his seemingly uninspired – it was so difficult to tell – 2009 and much of 2008. Bar a harsh lesson well learned on spent tyres in China, and a moment’s hesitation when battling Sebastian Vettel for the lead in Bahrain – only his third and fourth races back – this season he’s operated at the level which brought him the 2007 title, some 91 races ago. His assurance in the lead at Abu Dhabi, those pushes on cold tyres that gave him breathing space and the subsequent management of that space, was a match for anything Vettel has produced.

Although he has little time for pit-to-car radio – he prefers car-to-pit, if he must – hence his messages that are short in every sense, Räikkönen is blessed with a calm patience behind the wheel. (Take note, Monsieur Grosjean). This Finn likes to finish. He has retired only six times since joining Ferrari from McLaren five years ago. Even when in 2008 he skated off in a Spa downpour and crashed out over Singapore’s moronic chicane, he was classified 15th and 18th.

He is practiced at lengthy waits for victories too. There were 27 races between his first and second GP wins: Malaysia 2003 and Belgium 2004. And there were 25 between his 17th and 18th: Spain 2008 and Belgium 2009.

These are, however, drops in the ocean compared to Riccardo Patrese’s 98-race (with 56 retirements) hiatus between his wins for Brabham at Kyalami in 1983, handed to him by title-bound team-mate Nelson Piquet, and Williams at Imola in 1990. This gentleman of Veneto had long since scotched his perhaps unfair ‘Latin hothead’ label by the time of the latter success.

Rubens Barrichello in contrast remained unashamedly emotional from beginning to end. He bottled it up as best he could while under the well-paid yoke at Michael Schumacher’s Ferrari, but the wins and the greater slights sent it bubbling over. This obvious love for his sport was what saw him through a season on uncompetitive Bridgestones and three in underwhelming Hondas before ending his 84-race (13 retirements and one DSQ) win-less streak: at Valencia in 2009 with Brawn GP.

If anybody has loved sitting in a racing car more than Barrichello I guess that person would have to be Mario Andretti. And there were 81 GPs held between his victories for Ferrari at Kyalami in 1971 and Lotus at Fuji in 1976 – although his IndyCar commitments meant he entered only 39 of them.

Such patience/persistent/passion clearly takes many forms, crosses continents and defies stereotyping. Shy John Watson went 75 races between wins. Ebullient Johnny Herbert went 67. Tough guy Clay Regazzoni was the only driver to twice win after more than 50 consecutive races without a success: 51, of which he missed three, prior to the 1974 German GP, and 54, of which he missed one, prior to the 1979 British. And Piquet, a man who could be as dispassionate as Raïkkönen or as passionate as Barrichello, went 51 without before prevailing for Benetton in Japan in 1990.

And then there are those self-sufficient Australasians who, in so many ways, provided the template for modern F1. At a time when the World Championship calendar was less frantic, both Jack Brabham and Bruce McLaren went five consecutive seasons without a victory. That’s 51 and 60 potential starts respectively. Nurturing their eponymous, prototypical outfits was of more pressing concern to them for much of that time, however, and on several occasions they deferred their driving ambitions for the better welfare of their teams and benefit of their number one drivers. Brabham would have hung up his helmet had Dan Gurney stayed on for 1966 – instead Jack became that season’s world champion thanks to four victories in a row – and McLaren was surprised but delighted to score his team’s maiden GP victory: Belgium 1968.

Taciturn (in public at least) Jack and understated Bruce would have understood Raïkkönen when he spoke of his victory being more important to the team because, though he lacks some of its charm and graces, the Finn is a breath of old school fresh air. When he speaks, we listen.

But his silences, radio or otherwise, are so long that it’s nigh on impossible to stem the urge to fill the gaps. Because of this, and although I have no reason to disbelieve him, I do harbour hope that he enjoyed Abu Dhabi more than he let on and that the wait made it all the sweeter.

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