Saturday, 18 February 2012

Raikkonen is back – why F1 fans should rejoice

September 2000. A crisp morning at the serpentine Mugello circuit in Northern Italy. A quiet 20-year old Finn steps into a Sauber F1 car for the first time. His icy stare betrays his aching determination to impress on his debut. This is testing - F1´s unglamorous side. Cars pounding around the same tarmac, lap after lap, the drivers honing the car’s set-up and gathering data for their teams´ engineers in their quest to shave off that crucial fraction of a second. It’s a long way from the glitz of Monaco or the high-speed thrill of Silverstone; but here more than anywhere, championships are won or lost.

At this stage the young Finn is merely a blip on the F1 radar. Young drivers come and go. All eyes are on Michael Schumacher’s resplendent Ferrari. F1 cognoscenti are cudgelling their brains to unearth the secrets of the red car's prodigious speed. Little do they know that Schumacher´s future replacement has just entered the fray.

Fast forward eleven and a half years. Testing is under way for the 2012 season and the same driver again steps into the unknown. But this time to a deafening fanfare of acclaim and speculation. After a two-year absence, Kimi Raikkonen is back with the new Lotus team, and much has changed: new tyres, new aerodynamic regulations, a refuelling ban. Even for the world’s fastest sport the last two years have produced a rapid transformation, but some things never change – Raikkonen’s phlegmatic demeanour for one. His reaction to his first day back in testing where he was immediately fastest is typically deadpan: “Yeah the car feels pretty OK. I'm happy”. Dubbed ‘iceman’ in his first F1 career for his silent, implacable coolness, there is little hint of a thaw.

The buzz surrounding his return is even louder than when he was first announced as a full-time driver early in 2001. Barely 21, he arrived with the shortest CV on four wheels – having completed just 23 car races. Two years before he had been racing go-karts. Almost to a man, the FIA, F1´s governing body, professed shock and outrage. Max Mosley demanded that Raikkonen be stripped of his Superlicence – F1´s equivalent of a work permit – until he could prove himself. Drivers, journalists and team bosses poured scorn on Sauber´s decision. Raikkonen was making the unprecedented leap from the junior formulae to the pinnacle, skipping Formula 3 and Formula 3000, the traditional proving grounds for future F1 stars. Only a few, Schumacher among them, voiced their support.
Raikkonen arrived in Australia, the first race of the 2001 season, under a cloud – or rather an unwelcome glare - of controversy. Racing under appeal, it seemed that one false move would land him without a drive. But the doubts quickly evaporated. A fine sixth place on debut, followed by a near-podium in Brazil, then two 4th places in a car most expected to be scrapping for minor points. By mid-season Ferrari and McLaren were jostling to secure Raikkonen´s services for 2002.

Refusing to be pigeonholed as Schumacher’s number two at Ferrari, Raikkonen chose McLaren, replacing compatriot Mika Hakkinen. He quickly outclassed his team-mates, routinely humbling first David Coulthard then Juan-Pablo Montoya. In a two-year-old chassis – a relic in F1 terms – Raikkonen ran Schumacher to within two points of the 2003 title. The 2004 McLaren was well off the pace of the German´s all-conquering Ferrari but Raikkonen still managed to wrestle it to two pole positions and a victory. But it was his brilliant 2005 season that marked him as a great. Despite finishing runner-up thanks to repeated mechanical failures, Raikkonen drove spectacularly throughout. His performance in Japan, gouging out a victory despite starting 17th on the grid after passing Giancarlo Fisichella for the lead on the final lap, or in Monaco where he qualified half a second ahead of the field, remain imprinted on the minds of all who watched them.

With their 7-time World Champion Schumacher heading for retirement, Ferrari signed Raikkonen as his replacement for 2007. He did not disappoint, winning his first title after a dramatic late season comeback where he overhauled the sparring McLaren duo of Alonso and Hamilton. It was his relentlessness that impressed the most. His Lazarus-like performance at Fuji, where in monsoon conditions he battled back to third after tyre problems had forced him down to 20th and last, kept him in the title fight. In the final race the tables were turned in an ironic twist; Raikkonen sealed the championship courtesy of a mechanical glitch on Hamilton's McLaren. The fragility of the car which had denied him the title two years earlier had this time worked in his favour.

With his first Championship under his belt, Raikkonen’s stock was soaring but the following year he mysteriously went off the boil. Although faster than teammate Massa in the races, his qualifying performances were sub-par, leaving him a mountain to climb in the race. The first half of 2009 was similarly disappointing, and whispers of him being replaced were growing louder. But in the second half of the season he looked a different driver, achieving a string of podium placings including a fine win at Spa in Belgium: near-superhuman performances given the Ferrari's lack of grip compared to the front runners – the engineers were mystified at the speed he extracted from it. The Raikkonen of old – able to transcend deficiencies in a car and wrestle out a competitive lap time – was back.

But for Ferrari it was too little too late. They signed Fernando Alonso for 2010, backed by an enormous sponsorship deal with Santander and bought out Raikkonen's contract a year early so the Finn headed to World Rally. It seemed he had called time on his F1 career.

It was a shock then, to see the Finn sign up for 2012. Few believed he would ever return. He was fairly competitive in World Rally – even managing a stage victory against drivers who had raced there all their lives. But he is a remarkably adaptable driver with almost superhuman talent. Noone else has ever won a rally stage and an F1 race. He returned to F1 testing this year and was instantly quickest, despite a two-year break and no experience of the new Pirelli tyres. Testing is not racing, and the variations in fuel loads as cars try out different set-ups often mask performance. But Raikkonen's swashbuckling performance shows he is on the pace and looking to prove a point. Last year, Lotus (nĂ© Renault) scarcely troubled the scorers. But with a hungry, motivated Raikkonen at the wheel, they could be this year's surprise package.