The De-Tryst with Kimi?


Spa Francorchamps, 2005. The Belgian Grand Prix.

After the second round of pitstops. On a drying track, Kimi pushes to take the lead of the race.
"Kimi Raikkonen is pushing hard though. Intent on that, getting the lead, and Raikkonen has set the fastest, my goodness me (!) I can't believe my eyes! 1:53.810. That's two seconds faster than any lap in this grand prix so far! Wow!"
This was James Allen's reaction to this incredible turn of pace shown by Raikkonen. At the time, it didn't raise any eyebrows, because that was simply how quick Raikkonen was.

It was late 2000 and Sauber was looking for a driver to replace the outgoing Mika Salo, who was going to Toyota the next year. They had already secured Nick Heidfeld who had made his debut that year. Engineer Jacky Eeckelaert contacted the Robertsons to inquire about Jenson Button for a drive, but he was headed to Renault. Instead, the Robertsons offered Kimi Raikkonen. With Kimi having only raced in 23 races before, Sauber decided to take a risk and offer him a test. Kimi performed very well at the test.
"Kimi was a big risk," says Rampf. "But we came to the conclusions that he was the right man for us. We were amazed by his driving because he had no experience. At Mugello, I was there and Peter also came down. Kimi was given a laptime to achieve and after every day he had achieved it and we asked for a quicker laptime. Then we gave him new tyres and took out 40kg. 
"He had never driven with no fuel, and the simulation said that he should be 1.2 seconds quicker. And he did the first lap exactly 1.2 seconds quicker. He didn't know where the braking points were, and he just had the out lap to get a feel for it but he was spot on with the simulation. This was astonishing. 
"He was very confident. After the test, I told him that it was a good laptime but he could go quicker. He asked me if he should have gone quicker and I said 'that would have been good'. His response was 'if you had told me, I would have been quicker'. He wasn't joking - he was serious.
Peter Sauber fought with Red Bull boss Dietrich Mateschitz, the principal sponsor at the time and convinced him that Kimi was a better bet than the Red Bull backed driver at the time, Enrique Bernoldi.

This win came at a heavy price as Sauber subsequently lost Red Bull backing for 2001.
“I saw it in his eyes. I looked in his eyes and I thought ‘I’ve seen this look before. And I know where I saw that look before’. And it gave me goosebumps when I remembered that look. It was Senna.”
Sergio Rinland's prophecy was on point as Kimi, inspite of heavy opposition obtained his superlicense and silenced his critics as he finished 6th in his very first grand prix, securing points on the first time of asking. He eventually finished 10th in the final standings at the end of the year. Ron Dennis had seen enough by August and had finalized a deal to bring Kimi to McLaren for 2002, replacing his Finnish compatriot and double world champion Mika Hakkinen who also had a hand to convince McLaren of Kimi's speed. Once again, Kimi had put the powers to be in a situation where they had to break Nick Heidfeld's McLaren pre-contract to bring him in.

With four podiums in 2002, with one on his debut for McLaren, Kimi had a difficult season with the slow and unreliable MP4-17. 2003 was the year when Kimi tasted victory and missed out on the world championship by two points. The quick but highly erratic MP4-17D brought Raikkonen his win at Malaysia, and nine podiums. Ultimately it was a combination of youth and unreliability that lost out to Michael Schumacher's experience and fast Ferrari.

The narrow title loss catapulted the young Raikkonen to superstardom, and was touted as the Next Big Thing alongside Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button. With Autosport magazine already spreading rumours of a move to Ferrari in the near future, reality was to bring Kimi down to 7th in the championship standings in 2004 with only one win and three podiums toward the end of the season. McLaren started the season with the atrociously unreliable MP4-19 and switched to the much improved MP4-19B in the latter part of the season, which finally bought results.

Something seemed to have clicked in 2005 at McLaren, and the failures of the previous years led to what is arguably one of the fastest Formula 1 cars ever built, the MP4-20. With 7 pole positions, 10 wins and 12 fastest laps registered, it should have won the drivers and the constructors championship. But Kimi and McLaren walked away from the season empty handed. Fernando Alonso and Renault had won it all. The MP4-20 had the most powerful engine, but the Mercedes unit was also painfully unreliable. Kimi lost three potential wins due to various engine related issues, and this unreliability meant that Alonso ultimately went on to win the championship and that the McLaren MP4-20 went down in history as one of the fastest cars not to win a championship.

This season had set in motion a chain of events, which would force Michael Schumacher into early retirement and hail the beginning of a new era at Ferrari. An unremarkable 2006 saw McLaren witness a season without a win for the first time since 1996, but Kimi dragged out six podium finishes from a car that didn't have potential to mix it up at the sharp end of the grid.

2007 was a dawn of a new era, both at McLaren and Ferrari. Kimi Raikkonen's move to Ferrari and Lewis Hamilton's introduction at McLaren had ushered in a new era in the sport. Ferrari and McLaren fought tooth and nail day in, day out, on the track and off it. But the championship would ultimately be decided at the last race in Brazil. Lewis and Fernando led the standings with 107 and 103 points respectively, with Kimi and Massa following up with 100 and 86 points. Mathematically Kimi had a chance to win, but the odds were heavily stacked in McLaren's favour. Kimi went on the win the race, and the championship by a single point with the McLaren suffering unreliability once again.

Many have called it a lucky win, but ultimately you do need luck to win championships and Kimi had suffered his fair of share in 2003 and 2005. This leads us neatly on to the subject of this article. Kimi disappeared in 2008, and we didn't see him till late 2012. It wasn't the first time he had gone M.I.A either. Large parts of 2007 testify to his disappearance. It's no secret that Kimi has one of the biggest and the most loyal set of fans. Anyone who dares criticize him risks the wrath of the Internet. However deep down, even they will admit that Kimi simply hadn't turned up on many occasions.

If the timing screens flash purple and you see a car carving though the field, there's a good chance its Kimi behind the wheel. Very few drivers have the raw, natural, and unbelievable talent that Kimi possesses. Comparing raw, visceral speed, and pace, Kimi is one of the best right up there with Schumacher, Alonso, and Senna. I'm not a god fearing individual, and nor do I believe in the word "talent". But Kimi possesses the ability to take anything that moves and take it to the limit and beyond. His exploits in snowmobile racing and the World Rally Championship are a testament to that fact.

The lucky few who have sat next to him and witnessed his skill have nothing but hyperboles to describe the experience. His speed has left many drivers, past and present, gob smacked. Replays of his Monaco qualifying laps still send chills down any Formula 1 fan's spine. His ability to extract speed from a car has caused hysteria in the commentary box. His seemingly sub conscious control of a Ferrari F12 around Fiorano has gone near viral.

Then why do the numbers not reflect any of this?

On paper, Raikkonen is at best, mediocre. If this were Football Manager, you would not buy him. His record against team-mates tells a tale of a driver more likely to be replaced at the end of the season.

Outperformed by all his teammates since 2008(bar the Lotus years), its difficult to see why Ferrari resigned him for 2017. Although he did well at McLaren, he never up against World Champions like Alonso and Vettel. In fact it could be argued that Raikkonen is simply an average racing driver. On paper atleast it’s hard to see why he's still in F1 at all. Outpaced by Alonso on an average of 0.548 secs and 0.463 secs by Vettel last year, these stats are almost nightmarish for any driver.

But. There's this big niggling but. The belief that I, and all other Raikkonen fans have, that when given the car he likes Kimi is the quickest driver out there without a shadow of doubt. His swashbuckling McLaren drives were unbelievable. The combination of man and machine in 2005 had flashes of Senna written all over it. Every lap he drove was mesmerizing. A dominant force in every race, it was encapsulated what Formula 1 is all about. He drove some spectacular races with Ferrari, textbook performances in 2007, and dragging the heavy, bloated and uncompetitive 2009 car up the grid. Fired at the end of 2009, he took his severance money and fans to Nascar and the WRC.

Stories of his prodigious performances in Nascar tests are not well known, but its said that he helicoptered in at Rockingham, got into the car, and within 5 laps got to within half a second of the lap record. The team then ran just 50 laps of the 1.17 mile circuit, because he had nothing else left to learn. No one else had got to speed with a Nascar truck so quickly before, and the team chief was reportedly stunned at Raikkonen's pace. His pace in the World Rally Championship didn't go unnoticed either. As a rookie driver, he put in some outstanding performances with a series of consistent finishes in the top 10. In a SS stage in Algarve Stadium he also equaled Ken Block around the looping 2km track, (arguably the only track Block is good at) both finishing the course in a dead heat with 2:11.0.

His return to Formula 1 with Lotus in 2012 caused quite the stir, to put it mildly. His classy performances all year was topped off with a win at Abu Dhabi at the end of the season. He quickly adapted to the new tyre saving formula and in 2013, won the Australian Grand Prix with reportedly having only broken traction twice in the entire grand prix. A slew of podium finishes continued throughout the year, even through Pirelli switched to 2012 spec tires after the British Grand Prix (Isn't a formula supposed to stay constant?), which seemed to hamper Raikkonen more than his teammate Grosjean. Even though he skipped the last two races due to what it is suspected a combination of unpaid salary, and chronic back pain for which he required surgery, he still finished comfortably ahead of Grosjean in the final championship standings.

With Lotus floundering in debt, and losing key staff members, Ferrari saw their chance and offered him a contract. 2014 was a disastrous year for Kimi, outpaced and outgunned by Alonso over the course of the season. There were some performances, such as in Singapore where we saw flashes of Kimi's speed, but those occasional moments are now becoming the norm. 2015 wasn't any better, and although he did get 3 podium finishes, the writing is now on the wall. His performances in 2016 have been much better, although helped along by Vettel's mechanical problems.

There is still a belief that if given the right car, Kimi of the old will come alive again. Ferrari's bid for the World Champion is already in tatters, their only hope is to pool all resources into the 2017 project and try to finish ahead of the resurgent Red Bull. Kimi is exceptional in low grip, high power situations, his footwork and sensitivity can be a strong ally for him for 2017.

Here's hoping, as always, Kimi will reappear this year or the next.

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