Why the 2007 world cham­pion has taken a step down the grid

F1 Racing (UK) - - CONTENTS -

Kimi Räikkönen is a straight-talk­ing man. So his per­func­tory ex­pla­na­tion as to what con­vinced him to sign up for two more years in For­mula 1 with mid­field Sauber, hav­ing been dropped by Fer­rari in favour of ris­ing star Charles Le­clerc, is char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally to the point.

By the end of 2020, Räikkönen will be 41. He doesn’t need the money, he doesn’t need the has­sle… and he has made it very clear that he doesn’t need the me­dia scru­tiny. Yet his in­sa­tiable ap­petite for com­pe­ti­tion re­mains. Don’t mis­take the mono­syl­labic replies, the stone-faced ex­pres­sion, or even the lack of suc­cess in re­cent years for a lack of en­thu­si­asm. As Kimi puts it, he’s go­ing back to Sauber, the team where it all started for him way back in 2001, “be­cause I want to”. It’s that sim­ple.

Räikkönen re­turns to Sauber older and wiser than the fresh-faced up­start whose mere pres­ence in For­mula 1 that sea­son proved so con­tro­ver­sial. It re­quired spe­cial dis­pen­sa­tion for a driver straight out of For­mula Re­nault to be is­sued with the req­ui­site su­per­li­cence to make the huge step up to grand prix rac­ing, and many be­lieved he shouldn’t have got it. But Kimi Räikkönen was, and still is, a very spe­cial case.

The im­pres­sive ta­lent that burned so brightly dur­ing the first decade of the 21st cen­tury – one that moved Michael Schu­macher to ask the Sauber team who was this un­known driver shar­ing the Fio­rano test track – has faded to some­thing stead­ier. But Räikkönen, with his unique brand of anti-charisma, re­mains one of the most pop­u­lar driv­ers on the grid. He has also been a de­pend­able pres­ence at Fer­rari along­side Se­bas­tian Vet­tel in re­cent sea­sons.

The re­spect for Kimi within the Scud­e­ria is stag­ger­ing. Not only is he their last world cham­pion, an hon­our he se­cured 11 years ago, but he’s also enor­mously val­ued for the pre­ci­sion

of his ex­cel­lent feed­back and for how well he gels with the rest of the team. He is held in such high re­gard, in fact, that Fer­rari aban­doned their tra­di­tion of brief press state­ments de­tail­ing driver com­ings and go­ings to pay glow­ing trib­ute to his con­tri­bu­tion.

“The way we wrote the press re­lease was ab­so­lutely in­ten­tional,” Fer­rari team prin­ci­pal Mau­r­izio Ar­riv­abene later con­firmed. “We were us­ing a dif­fer­ent style, break­ing a bit the rules of Fer­rari, that is nor­mally go­ing to com­mu­ni­cate this in one line, giv­ing also trib­ute and re­spect to Kimi for what he has done with us and wish­ing him the best for the fu­ture.”

He’s cer­tainly go­ing to be missed by his team-mate Se­bas­tian Vet­tel, who in­sists re­sults aren’t the only – or even the most im­por­tant – mea­sure of Räikkönen’s con­tri­bu­tion. But of course he would say that, for in ad­di­tion to be­ing his friend, Kimi poses no threat to his lead­er­ship at Fer­rari. Even so, Vet­tel is sin­cere in be­ing com­pli­men­tary about Räikkönen.

“One thing you can ex­press is num­bers and re­sults and so on, but that’s not the most im­por­tant thing,” says Vet­tel. “The most im­por­tant thing if you are team-mates is the re­spect that you have for each other, or the de­gree of bull­shit go­ing on be­tween each other. With Kimi it has been zero from the start, and I don’t think it will change un­til the end. It’s a great chance for Charles, but also it’s sad to know that Kimi is not there any more be­cause I think we get along even though we are dif­fer­ent. We have this mu­tual re­spect for each other.”

Räikkönen’s move to Sauber came as a big sur­prise even to Fer­rari. When it was first an­nounced, many as­sumed Fer­rari’s deep-seated ap­pre­ci­a­tion of Räikkönen had led them to place him in the seat they con­trol there. In fact, this was a deal struck quickly be­tween Räikkönen and Sauber once Fer­rari had in­formed him, dur­ing the Ital­ian GP week­end, that he would no longer drive for them. Kimi sub­se­quently had just two meet­ings with Sauber team prin­ci­pal Frédéric Vasseur – and the deal was done.

Some also as­sume that Räikkönen has sim­ply signed up for a few more seven-fig­ure pay­cheques – but that’s not the case. It’s true that on oc­ca­sion he has strug­gled to mo­ti­vate him­self when the car has not been to his lik­ing, but over­all he still has the de­sire to suc­ceed.

“Kimi wants to drive F1 cars; he loves it,” in­sists Steve Robert­son, Räikkönen’s man­ager, who, along with late fa­ther Dave, was in­stru­men­tal in get­ting Kimi into F1 in the first place. “Peo­ple are sur­prised be­cause hav­ing driven for Fer­rari for so many years most peo­ple ex­pected him to re­tire, sit on his yacht, and en­joy the rest of his life. But he loves driv­ing F1 cars, he gets a buzz from that. Kimi loves be­ing on the edge. If he’s not do­ing this he wants to ride mo­tocross, but this is the pin­na­cle for him. And once we knew that it wasn’t go­ing to hap­pen at Fer­rari, he wanted to do a deal with Sauber.”

There is a bit of a shift in this mes­sag­ing. In re­cent years, it’s been said that win­ning is Räikkönen’s main mo­ti­va­tion in For­mula 1. And oddly, for a driver who hasn’t won a race in five sea­sons – and one whose strike rate of 20 wins out of 100 podi­ums makes him more Mr Con­sis­tency than Mr Ex­cite­ment – he has re­peat­edly stated that win­ning was his ob­jec­tive at Fer­rari. At Sauber, win­ning races isn’t a re­al­is­tic propo­si­tion, and he’s char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally vague when it comes to ex­plain­ing his new ob­jec­tives in the mid­field.

“RAC­ING. THAT’S ABOUT IT”

“Ob­vi­ously the aim is al­ways that [win­ning],” he main­tains. “Is it re­al­is­tic? Who knows. You can only aim for the best po­si­tions and see what comes up.”

Frédéric Vasseur is no fool, and needed to be con­vinced that Räikkönen would do more than just turn up to play. While Kimi isn’t es­pe­cially talk­a­tive, he has dis­played a clear in­ter­est in the sit­u­a­tion of a team who are re­build­ing af­ter a pe­riod of dire fi­nan­cial peril. And they’re do­ing well, with ti­tle spon­sor­ship from Alfa Romeo, an ever-closer re­la­tion­ship with Fer­rari, and now a world cham­pion driver, so there’s the chance to build on an en­cour­ag­ing 2018 sea­son.

“Kimi con­vinced me at the first meet­ing of his mo­ti­va­tion,” says Vasseur, “be­cause he was just fo­cused on the good ques­tions: ‘What is the sim­u­la­tor po­si­tion?’ ‘What is the re­la­tion­ship with Fer­rari?’ ‘How is the team run­ning?’ ‘Who will be the chief en­gi­neer?’ ‘Where are we with the next car?’ He was just fo­cused on this; the ques­tions were just on per­for­mance. I loved the ap­proach, and I know that if he has this kind of ap­proach, he will be very sup­port­ive with us.

“He loves rac­ing, and I think he will en­joy it like this – he will be able to spend more time with the team and come to the fac­tory. The first time we talked, he said: ‘I can come to the work­shop.’ He wants to be part of the project, and this is prob­a­bly much eas­ier with us than some­one else.”

Re­al­is­ti­cally speak­ing, Räikkönen’s chal­lenge will be to get the car into Q3 on its good week­ends and to score points con­sis­tently. How well he will rise to the chal­lenge re­mains to be seen, but Sauber are a team with whom he has a great affin­ity. He never for­got the op­por­tu­nity he was given by the team, and over the in­ter­ven­ing years would of­ten pop down to the Sauber hos­pi­tal­ity unit for lunch dur­ing race week­ends.

Some per­son­nel from his first sea­son are still work­ing for Sauber, and they’re ex­cited about Räikkönen’s re­turn. Most of the em­ploy­ees don’t go back that far, and will be fas­ci­nated to see how the re­al­ity of work­ing with Kimi com­pares with the myth, be­cause from the out­side he is still in­du­bitably an enigma.

Ev­ery­one has what might be termed a ‘game face’, a char­ac­ter they adopt in a work­ing en­vi­ron­ment, but in the case of Kimi Räikkönen the con­trast is ex­treme. At the cir­cuit, he is quiet, with many who have worked with him for ex­tended pe­ri­ods of time say­ing they would ex­change only a hand­ful of words. But in his own time, when he is re­laxed and en­joy­ing him­self, those close to him re­port a more gar­ru­lous, easy-go­ing char­ac­ter with a good sense of hu­mour. A dif­fer­ent per­son­al­ity al­to­gether.

He’s still sure to be a pop­u­lar fig­ure among those work­ing on his car. There are plenty of sto­ries in cir­cu­la­tion about his first stint with Sauber, in­clud­ing tales of some leg­endary nights out with his then work-mates. Af­ter all, he is, at heart, a me­chanic him­self. And, with a few ex­cep­tions, most who work with him talk of Räikkönen as a loyal and lik­able char­ac­ter.

One ru­mour that can be dis­missed is that he has gained some kind of stake in Sauber, or has started on the path to­wards a man­age­ment role with the team. Räikkönen has scotched the ru­mour, mak­ing it very clear that this is an arena of lit­tle in­ter­est to him. He al­ready has a team, the Iceone mo­tocross team, which com­petes at world cham­pi­onship level.

He has also long held a stake in the Dou­ble R Rac­ing team (Räikkönen-robert­son), which cur­rently com­petes in both Bri­tish F3 and F4. The team is run by the well-re­spected An­thony ‘Boyo’ Hieatt, an en­gi­neer with a lengthy record of suc­cess in ju­nior sin­gle-seaters, who be­lieves Räikkönen’s in­ter­est in the re­al­i­ties of run­ning race teams is un­der­es­ti­mated.

“I spent a good amount of time at the Bri­tish Grand Prix with him, and [Dou­ble R Rac­ing] is the only thing he talked about,” says Hieatt. “What peo­ple don’t re­alise is that he likes the nuts and bolts of mo­tor rac­ing. He likes the pri­vate jets, too, but his job was as a kart me­chanic and that’s never changed.

“Mo­tocross is part of Kimi’s re­lax­ation; he’s got his own track in his back gar­den! When you’re rid­ing a mo­tocross bike, noth­ing else mat­ters. It’s to­tal men­tal free­dom. I imag­ine that ap­peals to him.”

It’s this sim­plic­ity that has won Räikkönen such un­stint­ing af­fec­tion from his fans. Un­like other driv­ers, he doesn’t play games, and he doesn’t self-mythol­o­gise. What he does is to race hard, race clean, and of­fer the kind of blank slate that al­lows ev­ery­one to project their own favoured qual­i­ties onto a driver who re­veals so lit­tle of him­self to the out­side world. Whether you favour the hard-liv­ing James Hunt-style Kimi Räikkönen, or the qui­eter fam­ily man with two chil­dren, he is a driver who of­fers a hint of some­thing for ev­ery­one.

What can­not be doubted, though, is that Räikkönen still gets some­thing out of F1. How much he has to of­fer to Sauber is a ques­tion that will be an­swered only once the new sea­son kicks off, but given the qual­ity of driv­ers avail­able, it has to be as­sumed that the team con­sid­ers him a valu­able as­set – even if his most com­pet­i­tive days are likely now be­hind him.

As for Räikkönen him­self, un­less you are part of his in­ner cir­cle you can never re­ally be sure what mo­ti­vates him, what drives him. You can only fol­low the hints, the in­sights of­fered from those who know him, and the sim­ple fact that no­body would put them­selves through two more gru­elling years of com­pet­ing in elite sport un­less they were truly mo­ti­vated to do so.

But that’s the point of Kimi Räikkönen: he’s not an­swer­able to any­one other than him­self. And if he’s sat­is­fied he’s join­ing Sauber for the right rea­sons, that’s all that mat­ters.

“I HAVE MY REA­SONS AND THAT’S ENOUGH FOR ME, I DON’T RE­ALLY CARE WHAT OTH­ERS THINK”

Kimi’s roots at the Sauber team run deep. This was where he started out in 2001 and where he will most likely fin­ish his For­mula 1 ca­reer

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