At the end of the 2009 season, 2007 world drivers’ champion Kimi Raikkonen dramatically walked away from Formula 1 at the age of 30, having been forced out by Ferrari, a year before his contract had been due to expire, to make room for Fernando Alonso’s arrival from Renault.
Having decided to pursue a career rallying, and doing so for the next two years, most assumed that Raikkonen had closed off his route back to Formula 1, which made his return to the sport with Lotus at the start of the current campaign such a surprise. Even then, though, there was some doubt that Raikkonen could, after so long away, return to his past glories with a team that had started brightly in 2011, but faded badly as the season progressed. As the season has progressed Raikkonen, and Lotus, have proved the doubters wrong, though.
Before leaving Formula 1 at the end of 2009, Raikkonen was considered one of the sport’s elite drivers. Having driven for both McLaren and Ferrari – the two leading teams at that time, and still part of the top three teams, with Red Bull Racing – the Finn developed a reputation as a fearsome competitor. He won a total of 18 races, but it was not until the 2007 season, his seventh year in the sport, that he was finally rewarded with a world drivers’ championship.
Prior to 2007, his first year at Ferrari, Raikkonen has twice been the runner-up in the world drivers’ championship, in 2003 and 2005, while driving for McLaren. Raikkonen’s move to Ferrari, to replace the retiring seven time world drivers’ champion Michael Schumacher, brought him the championship that he was looking for, chasing down rookie Lewis Hamilton who seemed to have the championship won with two races to go and a 20 point championship lead (at the time when a win was worth 10 points). Two disastrous results for Hamilton – a retirement in China, when looking set for victory, and seventh place in Brazil – coupled with back to back victories for Raikkonen meant that it was the Finn that took the title in his first year with Ferrari.
Raikkonen, had certainly made the most of his opportunity at Ferrari, and it looked as though things were well set for him to win further championships with the team. This proved not to be the case, though. Having won the 2007 championship, Raikkonen seemingly lost some of his mojo in 2008. Not only was he beaten to the title by Lewis Hamilton, but he was out of the running with two races to go having failed to score a single point for four races (Europe, Belgium, Italy and Singapore).
If this wasn’t bad enough, his Ferrari team-mate, Felipe Massa, was the driver that mounted the strongest championship challenge for the Scuderia. Massa only lost out on the title by a single point after Hamilton passed the Toyota of Timo Glock for fifth place on the last corner of the last lap of the final race of the season at Massa’s home race at Interlagos, after the Brazilian had already won the race.
2009 was something of a disaster for Raikkonen and Ferrari. The Finn only took one victory, in Belgium, that year after Ferrari were caught out by a change in regulations that brought Red Bull Racing and Brawn to the fore. Raikkonen finished in sixth place in the championship and, at the end of the season Ferrari announced that, despite being under contract for another season, the Finn would be leaving the team to be replaced by 2005 and 2006 world drivers’ champion, Fernando Alonso.
Despite being forced out of Ferrari, Raikkonen had other options available to him in Formula 1. He had been expected to join McLaren to partner Lewis Hamilton, but negotiations with the Woking based team broke down. Mercedes GP, who had just taken both the drivers’ and the constructors’ world championships as Brawn GP, were another option for Raikkonen, but the team opted to bring Michael Schumacher out of retirement. Even then, though, Raikkonen was offered a drive by Toyota, before they decided to pull out of the sport, but Raikkonen wanted a more competitive car, not to mention a higher salary, than the one that was reportedly on offer from the Cologne based team.
It seemed that Raikkonen was destined to leave F1, and so he did entering World Rally Championship with Citroen’s junior team in 2010. Although he had some successes, notably taking victory in the 2010 Rallye Vosgien in France, having won all six stages, Raikkonen failed to set the rallying world alight. We was linked with a return to Formula 1 in 2011 with Renault, with team boss Eric Boullier saying, when asked about the possibility of Raikkonen returning to F1 with his team “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?”. Raikkonen himself dismissed the link with Renault and accused the team of using his name for “their own marketing purposes”. He went on to compete in rallying again in 2011 with his own team.
Having been so dismissive of Renault in 2011 it was somewhat of a surprise that Raikkonen returned to the sport with the very same team in their new guise as Lotus in 2012. Raikkonen has taken six podium finishes – three seconds and three thirds – in his first season back in Formula 1 and, despite having failed to take a single victory, sits third in the world drivers’ championship, 48 point behind championship leader, Red Bull Racing’s Sebastian Vettel, with four races remaining.
With 100 points still available, a second world drivers’ championship in his first season back at the pinnacle of motorsport remains mathematically possible for Raikkonen, who celebrated his 33rd birthday last week. Realistically, however, the championship now looks to be a four race shootout between Fernando Alonso, until the last race in Korea the long time championship leader, and 2010 and 2011 world drivers’ champion Sebastian Vettel.
Raikkonen, though, refuses to concede the title just yet. Despite having failed to get their passive F-duct system working well enough to race, Lotus have now added a coanda effect exhaust to their arsenal and with more updates to come in India, Raikkonen believes that his championship chances are far from over, and he’s using his experience in 2007 as an extra motivator. The Finn acknowledges that the points deficit to Vettel is “quite big now” and that it will be “difficult to catch him”, but went on to cite 2007 as proof that the championship fight isn’t over yet, saying “Of course, in 2007 the championship wasn’t decided until the last race so anything is possible. Let’s see what happens”.
I very much doubt that we’ll see Raikkonen take a second world drivers’ championship in 2012, but perhaps a race victory is within his grasp if the new updates from Lotus can deliver big improvements in performance and regain the position they had in the pecking order earlier in the season. The team probably had the quickest car in Hungary where they took a double podium but failed to overhaul the McLaren of Lewis Hamilton, but have since fallen back. At this stage of the season Lotus now have probably only the fourth fastest car, but with a performance boost, a bit of luck and maybe some help from the weather, Raikkonen might yet win a race this year.
It has certainly been an amazing Formula 1 rebirth for Raikkonen, who has been a model of consistency in 2012. He has finished every single race and only failed to score in one – China. The only missing ingredients in his season are race wins. Had he had a few, we may well be looking at a different championship leader.