One of the few interesting things to come out of the Singapore Grand Prix weekend was the rumour that Kimi Raikkonen had been spotted visiting the Williams F1 factory in Grove.
Presuming he wasn’t just popping down there to cut the breeze after a day out in Wantage, one comes to the conclusion that the 2007 world champion could be looking for a drive next year in F1. The doors are closed at Ferrari, McLaren and Red Bull for 2012, and so Kimi is looking further down the grid to get a new lease of life in the sport. Williams, as one of the most successful teams in the history of the sport, seems good choice, and some are duly tantalised at the idea of there being an unprecedented six world champions on the grid.
Many, however, are not so convinced. In Raikkonen’s later years in F1 before he gave it all up to go rallying, there was a strong perception amongst the F1 fraternity that his mojo had gone, that after winning the title he had done all he set out to do in F1, and was bored of the sport, and fundamentally bored of the politics and sponsorship commitments.
Kimi is a man of few words, as a result, most of this was conjecture, it had to be, when no words are coming from the man in question, how can a journalist qualify their suspicions? As a result the popular opinion is that Kimi left F1 because he could not be bothered with it anymore, so what has changed?
Well, his WRC performances have levelled out, and he has no works drive on the horizon. He has spoken openly, since a return to wheel to wheel racing in NASCAR, of a desire to get back to being on track with other people. Naturally, this would lead him to F1, where, as mentioned, he has a reputation as a driver that cannot be relied on to care. is that reputation fair?
Kimi Raikkonen competed in 157 grand prix in his “1st” F1 career, winning 18 races, scoring 16 poles and 35 fastest laps, finishing on the podium in 40% of the races he competed. Notable victories include many fighting drives from grid positions outside the front two rows. Winning the Japanese GP at Suzuka, 2005, from seventeenth on the grid, taking the lead on the final lap, being a stand out performance. As well as this we note four wins at Spa (’04, ’05, 07, ’09), at least two of which coming in cars that were not really competitive. In 2004, for example, Kimi beat Schumacher in a McLaren that could not really hold a candle to the dominant Ferrari F2004, from tenth on the grid. In 2009 the Ferrari F60 was an evil handling turd of a car that, starting sixth, saw another victory in the Ardennes. These performances, regardless of press, make him a stand out talent of the last ten years.
To suggest that this man has no commitment or cannot be bothered is a misnomer, largely perpetuated by the press and not refuted by the man himself. Does his silence in the press mean that we have to believe what is written in the Gazetta? None of us really know the reason for his apparent slump in performance through 2008 (A year in which he still won two races) and 2009. People within Ferrari have suggested that as the title push went towards Massa in 2008 that his head dropped, this seemingly carried on into 2009 when Ferrari put out a dog of a car. It is reported that during the McLaren years Kimi was the “favourite” of Ron Dennis, a man who always chose favourites, just ask Lauda, Prost, Coulthard, Montoya and Alonso; this was reflected in Kimi’s performances, that were, at times, extraordinary. Perhaps the steely exterior is not the reality of a man who, perhaps, needs more support than the press like to imagine he does.
A lot of talk was made about his pay, being the highest paid sportsman (purportedly) in 2008, about how he should produce more performance from somewhere based on this. I don’t want to get tied up in the money thing, the fact that Kimi was paid so well by Ferrari was more a product of good management than any reflection of anything else. Getting paid more does not make a driver perform better, it might make the Tifosi seethe, but once a driver starts getting paid more than they can count it just becomes numbers, and the job is still the job.
The popular perception that Kimi “just turns up and drives” is also a curious one, his technical skills are reportedly very impressive, but he does not get tied up in minutia. Comparison with Schumacher is moot here. Schumacher was the testing king, he tested every chance he got, and he also had the ear of Bridgestone for so long, and tested their tyres for so long, that he got used to having a team biased entirely around him, and tyres custom made to his style. Had Schumacher (Who quit at the end of 2006 because he did not want to be team-mate to Kimi!) moved to McLaren for 2007 we don’t know if he would have struggled in a new team, after so many years with it all one way. Schumacher may have struggled on his return in 2010, but the likes of Di Resta or Maldonado have struggled much less with the transition to F1, immediate adaptability is a very personal thing, and people saying this and that about how much F1 has changed are largely just making excuses for Michael’s performances. The man himself has not made said excuses. There is no cause, in my mind, to assume that the same issues would blight Raikkonen.
The other question mark about Kimi’s performances at Ferrari bear more relation to Schumacher’s work, in that the car he picked up in 2007 was very much designed around what Schumacher wanted from a car. People used to say Schumacher liked a pointy car, but Ferrari engineers were shocked by how much oversteer Kimi was happy to deal with (As McLaren engineers were with Hamilton at the same time). McLaren, for many, many years, have been making very oversteery cars, largely since the Senna days their focus had been in this area, and yet Ferrari had been producing cars that favour an initial touch understeer that for Kimi meant a lack of confidence on turn in. This, co-incidentally, is exactly the kind of car Massa likes to have under him, thus we saw Massa (Who despite his apparent emotional issues is fundamentally very quick, when someone gives him a cuddle) pulling more pace out of the car in ’08. In ’09 the Ferrari F60 was awful for both drivers, overly aggressive KERS harvesting caused unexpected results on entry with heavy coast diff locking and this, allied to the lack of turn in bite, made a car that was very difficult to be confident with on entry and skittish on exit. Look at the issues Fisichella had with this car when leaping into it at the end of the year, himself a race winner, he could not get it into the top ten in qualifying while Kimi was scoring podiums.
How much any of this justifies certain performances is clearly an item for discussion, but when the driver is asked by the press “Why are you not fast enough” and he is giving one word answers, or saying “I was having a shit” then the press can say what they like, and what they chose to go with was that he could not be bothered to even try. Lest we forget that he dared to have an ice cream once, and this was cited by an overly enthusiastic-Kimi banging-press to suggest that this ice cream was in some way a “do not care ice cream.” I find this absurd.
Perhaps he does not have the work ethic of Schumacher, Alonso or Vettel, this may be true, but it cannot be doubted that he is a stand out talent of this era of GP racing. Whilst hard work can get you so far, without talent it will get you nowhere. Is it not the case, right now, that the press are banging Hamilton quite heavily for suggesting he is not focussed on the job, and that he is squandering his talent? Is this not a typical jaunt that the press like to go on? They banged Button for it in 2001 and 2002. When results don’t come, the press have to fill column inches with perceived reasons, when the driver stays quiet, he is damned, and, it seems, when he talks, he is also damned!
Some cite his WRC performances as an example that his driving edge is not what it used to be, I don’t think this is really fair. WRC is a radically different discipline, he never had top line machinery, and ultimately he probably isn’t as good a rally driver as he is F1 driver. He did give WRC a good go, over two years, and finished reasonably often in the lower points. When you look at drivers like Malcolm Wilson or Henning Solberg there is only so much you can do without a works drive. Wilson has had a good enough Ford for years, yet is still fighting in the lower points. Petter Solberg does more than any of them with his own car, but he is a hugely talented WRC driver. Where would he finish if he jumped into an F1 car? It is not really fair to suggest that his WRC work involved no effort, to completely change discipline is a massive effort for anyone, in any field. Forays into NASCAR also saw Kyle Busch being very impressed with his effort and application, is there a theme here?
The theme is that the assumption that Kimi cannot be bothered to do anything is an overreaction to a few non-perfect performances. Qualifying a few tenths from your team mate is not “making no effort”, but the high profile position of being a Ferrarista, allied to press based attack means that a reputation exists for Kimi. All the while, drivers like Jarno Trulli get to be regularly outpaced by their team mate by a second a lap and yet no one bemoans their application or focus.
The facts of this matter are that for him to even consider coming back to a midfield drive has to suggest some commitment to the task in hand. If he was not going to make any effort then why even talk about it? If he really cannot be bothered to do anything why doesn’t he stay at home and work on a nice, all emcompassing heroin habit? Does he deserve a chance? Why not? Williams, don’t have a lot to lose and to run Grosjean or Sutil surely is just as much, if not more of a risk.
I honestly think that the times we have always seen the best from Raikkonen is when he is up against it in a slower car, and the times when he has been less than impressive are when the perception is that he should be winning with ease. Thus, I think for him to run in a Williams for a season could be a very sobering (excuse the pun) year and I also don’t think he is stupid enough to come back to F1 and not be committed to it. If you read interviews in serious motorsport press with the man, you can see he is not the fool that the gutter press want to make him out to be.
There is one thing that Williams can get from this, and it is a driver that, if given the right car, will win. As well as this, as they busily watch Rubens moan and moan and have a little cry about how slow the car is, they don’t know if his tears are clouding his performance. With Kimi, and a motivated Kimi, they know that he will maximise the potential of their car, that they can ultimately know how fast their car is. With a rookie they have much more of an unknown quantity.
For Raikkonen to return to F1 in a midfield car the main aim would be to get back to winning ways, this means he needs to quash the reputation he has attained. Whether that reputation is fair or not doesn’t really matter, it is clear from the responses of some of my peers the way he is regarded now, it would be up to him to prove to all of you that he deserves it. I, for one, think he at least deserves the chance to try to prove you wrong.