The slanting rays of the Interlagos sunshine, sneaking between the rains thundering down on track silhouetted Kimi Räikkönen’s profile and shimmered along the edges of his visor in an eerily golden glow. As he trudged off, the Finn had this to say about his rather disappointing performance:
“It was a busy race and we didn't have the pace we wanted all the time. There was certainly a lot going on. I went off at the last corner on lap fifty-two, as I couldn't see well with my visor being dirty and fogged up. Where I went off you can get back on the track by going through the support race pit lane, but you have to go through a gate. I know this as I did the same thing in 2001 and the gate was open that year. Somebody closed it this time. Next year I'll make sure it's open again.”
Direct, curt, and stinging. As always.
If there ever were a man who personified the saying “actions speak louder than words”, it would be Räikkönen. Following a disappointing season in 2009 with his erstwhile team Ferrari, Räikkönen decided to take an extended break from the sport after questions arose regarding the Finn’s motivation and hunger to succeed. There were many skeptics in motorsport who held the opinion that the party-lover from Espoo had descended into a state of indifference after winning the World Drivers’ Championship in his first season with Ferrari. Yet for all the talk, the Iceman’s blistering comeback has served as a classy riposte to all his critics.
Räikkönen has always remained one of the great mysteries of Formula 1. His phenomenal ability behind the wheel is only offset by his almost cathartic nonchalance to everything else around him. His famously monosyllabic replies have led to the Finn gaining a legendary status with the mass media and the fans, while the general level of insouciance has resulted in a veritable smörgåsbord of soundbites, be it directed towards reporters, other drivers or even his own team.
All bark and no bite then? Hardly.
Räikkönen’s near unparalleled level of ability on the track has never been in question. On his day, he can easily make mincemeat out of everyone else on track and he has amply shown how capable he is of doing this – Räikkönen shares the record for the most number of wins in a season without winning the Championship (7); he also shares the record for the greatest number of fastest laps set in a season (10) with Michael Schumacher; he is the first driver since Nigel Mansell at the 1989 Brazilian Grand Prix to win on his Ferrari debut, and the first since the great Juan Manuel Fangio to start from pole, win and set the fastest lap on his Ferrari debut; he is only the second driver to win the World Championship after being third in the drivers’ standings before the final race (after Giuseppe Farina, a feat later surpassed by Sebastian Vettel in 2010); he is the most successful Finnish Formula 1 driver of all-time in terms of total points, podium finishes and lap timings; Räikkönen holds the record for the most number of wins in a debut season (6), beating Alain Prost’s seventeen year old record; he also holds the record for the most number of classified finishes (20) and points finishes (19) in a single season (2012) and at the time of his departure from the sport, was the highest paid driver in the history of Formula 1.
Numbers aside, the remarkable consistency and speed that the Iceman has shown throughout his comeback season has amazed me. For someone who has been racing on snowy mountain roads, gravelly dirt tracks and in NASCAR, Räikkönen has astonishingly managed to maintain his metronomic reliability on the much quicker and more technical circuits of Formula 1. Not so surprisingly however, that doesn’t seem to be all that he has retained. After having succeeded where Schumacher has failed, the Iceman has become – for better or worse – the darling of the paddock. The media seems to have realised that one rowdy character is much better than ten streamlined yes-men, and Räikkönen appears to be the perfect fodder for them. From taking naps on-track to coldly letting his team know who’s in charge, the Iceman has had an exhilarating and thoroughly entertaining comeback year.
Yet when the season started, there were doubts about which Räikkönen Lotus had signed – the one that fought from 17th on the grid to victory for McLaren in the 2005 Japanese Grand Prix, or the one whose $51 million contract was bought out by Ferrari in 2009 to let Fernando Alonso race for the team instead. Surely, the same question was on Lotus team principal Éric Boullier’s mind when Räikkönen apparently contact him about a possible comeback as early as 2010:
“I would have to speak personally with him first, look him in the eyes to see if I see enough motivation there for him to return to F1. It doesn't make sense to hire somebody, even a former world champion, if you cannot be sure that his motivation is still 100%. Why should you invest in somebody who leaves you guessing?”
Boullier’s concern was well warranted. After nicking the World Championship in 2007, Räikkönen’s form drastically slipped, falling from 6 wins and 12 podiums in 2007 to a sum total of 3 wins and 14 podiums in 2008 and 2009 combined. After setting 16 fastest laps in 35 races over 2007 and 2008, Räikkönen failed to set a single one throughout 2009, as the F60 struggled with the FIA’s new aerodynamic regulations and was comprehensively outclassed by the cars of BrawnGP and Red Bull Racing. Räikkönen and Ferrari scored no points throughout the season until the Bahrain GP where he finished 6th. Räikkönen finally managed his first and only victory of the season at the Belgian Grand Prix as the “King of Spa” (among his many nicknames) won his fourth Belgian GP in the last five years. As terrible as the car was however, Räikkönen kept pushing throughout the rest of the season, achieving a further four podium finishes more. As his engineer Andrea Stella put it,
“Kimi seems to place the car at points beyond the realms of its limits, it was almost impossible to believe.”
Yet for all his effort, the Iceman was still considered by many, including his own team principal Stefano Domenicali to be the wrong person to lead Ferrari further forward:
“In a car that is capable of winning, he was and is perfect. But if the car needs to be developed and the team fired up, [Fernando] Alonso is better.”
Why was the blame being put on Räikkönen for an underperforming car? After all, he had managed to wring results from a car so terribly underdeveloped that his own team had admitted much the same. Part of the reason for it may have been his lifestyle. Räikkönen’s playboy lifestyle has often been mentioned as a reason behind his supposed underperformance and the Finn eschews the aesthetic lifestyle and demanding work ethic of the man Ferrari signed him to replace – Michael Schumacher.
Räikkönen’s lifestyle and party loving nature has been the subject of intense scrutiny by the F1 industry for long. In 2005, he was he was fined by then team McLaren Mercedes for launching into his own strip show at a gentleman’s club in London. After the 2006 season ended, Räikkönen was at home, taking part in a snowmobile rally under the pseudonym “James Hunt” while his rivals were already down in Australia, preparing for the upcoming Australian Grand Prix. Hunt, the 1976 World Champion had the same freewheeling playboy attitude often attributed to the Finn. Later in the same year, he won a powerboat race in Finland while dressed in a gorilla suit, winning the prize for “best dressed crew” along the way. It is this laconic, laid back attitude and point-black refusal to not conform to the accepted F1 standards that has led to him being accused of not working hard enough. (FYI, he did manage to go out and win that Australian GP.)
Taking part in an endurance snowmobile race on the other side of the world a week before the first race of a season in which you have joined a new team and are the favourite for the world title would be dismissed as madness by most in F1. And behavior like that leaves him open to criticism when things don’t always go his way.
Not that this bothers the man very much. He answers the media’s questions in a metallic monotone, refusing to reveal any part of his true personality. Räikkönen is famously ponderous before the Dictaphone and has chosen to separate his personal and professional life to such a large extent that he remains as much of an enigma now as he did at the age of 21. His anti-establishment plain talking attitude hasn’t helped his public image much either.
As the BBC’s Andrew Benson put it, “certainly after Schumacher's willingness to devote long, long hours to the team, Ferrari found it hard to adjust to working with a man who preferred to leave the track as soon as he could after he had finished driving.”
The fit was less than perfect and Ferrari decided enough was enough. Räikkönen’s contract was bought out as the Scuderia unceremoniously dumped the Finn. Deadpan as ever, the Iceman had this to say when asked about his future in Formula 1:
“Maybe I will race, maybe not. My only aim, if I am going to race next year, is to have a car that can win the championship. Otherwise there is no point.”
And what did he think of a return to McLaren?
“I don't have any bad things to say about them. We always had a good relationship. It’s a chance, but so far I have not thought much about these things.”
Domenicali meanwhile, did a stunning about face:
“We are very disappointed that this year, we did not give him a competitive car and I thank him for never having thrown in the towel, in fact, fighting even harder when the situation was at its trickiest. He is a great talent, a great champion and he is in the history of Ferrari, he won the world title. You have to make decisions for the future and take into consideration a lot of things. You will never hear me say anything negative about Kimi, I feel he is one of the strongest in the field.”
But maybe Stefano had a point. Statistics never tell the whole story but Kimi’s performance graph between January ’08 and October ’09 makes Spain’s economy look respectable.
Tongues were a-wagging therefore, when Räikkönen announced his return to the sport in 2012 with Lotus. Questions were raised as to whether the former champion had found the desire and the motivation needed to compete at the highest levels of the sport.
“It will depend on the car we have. Who knows? Of course I want to win again. But what can you do if your car isn’t good enough? I’ll push as hard as I can.”
And push he did. A spectacular comeback ensued and Räikkönen proved yet again why everyone in the sport considers him such a maverick. His speed remained stellar, his ability, mercurial. An excellent drive in the Chinese Grand Prix was ruined by his tyre strategy badly misfiring, and was followed by stunning performances in Bahrain, at the Circuit de Cataluña, in the European Grand Prix and at the Hungaroring, finishing 2nd, 3rd, 2nd and 2nd respectively. At the Belgian Grand Prix, the “King of Spa” wrapped up another third place position despite Lotus’s improvements to the car being hampered by the bad weather. Räikkönen’s dazzling driving skills were on display in the Korean GP, where he came out on top after an impressive battle with Lewis Hamilton. Räikkönen’s and Lotus’s first and only victory of the season came at the Yas Marina circuit in Abu Dhabi. After qualifying fourth, Räikkönen fought up the grid and captured the lead when Hamilton retired, and clung on for what the Independent’s David Tremayne described as the most “romantic” result of the season –
“And it was a romantic result, with the historied Lotus marque for which bygone heroes Jim Clark and Graham Hill and Jochen Rindt and Emerson Fittipaldi and Mario Andretti once drove, gaining their first victory since Ayrton Senna's success in Detroit a quarter of a century ago.”
It was always coming. The victory he had missed by the skin of Sebastian Vettel’s rear tires in Sakhir seven months ago was finally in the bag, and there was no happier man than Boullier:
“We had a better first half of the season and we nearly came close to the win and you could have felt frustration without this win, so it is relief for everybody (…) but I think Kimi put on a great drive to do it (…) so I'm very happy.”
Asked about it later on, Räikkönen had this to say about the result –
“I always thought that it was possible. It was just a question of getting all the things right on a weekend and carry that on to the race. We’ve been able to improve the car a bit since Korea - since then we had some new parts. In India we had real good speed, but some mistakes in qualifying had put us in a bad position in the race, so I would say that Abu Dhabi was just a logical step when you manage to make no mistakes. We knew there that if things go smoothly that we would give ourselves a chance - and there you have it, we did it.”
Of course, he dead-batted everything else that came along his way. Asked about how long he planned to stay in F1, the Iceman coolly replied “I have a contract until the end of 2013 - and then we will see. 2013 might be my last year - and it might be not. You never know. At the moment I like it.”
The Iceman had made his point. Lotus had gotten the right Räikkönen. The fit was right, and Kimi has found his groove again.
“It's all about racing and less about politics and I think that's a good thing for the whole team. Hopefully we can build it up next year and I know the team next year so it should be a bit more easy to start strong next season.”
The thrill isn’t gone, and the hunger is back, and the Iceman is on the prowl. With a faster car and a more cohesive team, Räikkönen could easily tear up the field for a second World Championship. If Lotus is willing to listen to him and give him the car he needs, he will easily deliver the results they expect. And maybe, just maybe, the gorilla suits and strip-club escapades will be a foregone conclusion. James Hunt might disapprove, but Räikkönen has always been and always will be a class above him. The 2013 season promises to be another thrilling year in the history of F1, and we can be sure the Iceman is going to enjoy the fun.