A heady mix of speed, control and zest

There can be no denying Kimi Raikkonen is a worthy world champion, winning six of the season’s 17 races, two more than Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso and three more than his team-mate Felipe Massa, writes Alan Henry.

Formula One has woken up to a very different world champion from the one that British fans were waiting to celebrate. Whereas Lewis Hamilton is a media-savvy member of the high technology generation, Kimi Raikkonen is an old-fashioned racing driver out of the heroic mould to whom a beer with his old friends is as important as driving flat-out to Grand Prix glory.

There is very much a touch of James Hunt about Raikkonen. The Finn may not be as obviously extrovert as the 1976 World Champion but Hunt would certainly have approved of reports of Raikkonen’s roistering behaviour in a West End club and his reportedly falling asleep outside a Spanish bar clutching an inflatable dolphin. The third Finn to win the World Championship can certainly put his foot down in more ways than one.

“I live my life on my own terms and that’s it,” he said. Yet for all his obvious zest for life, Raikkonen is a real professional whom Ferrari paid a reputed $34m (£17m) a year to prise away from McLaren. Like Mika Hakkinen before him, Raikkonen has that unique blend of raw speed and total control which has been the hallmark of previous generations of Scandinavian racing drivers. Some might say he is abnormally brave.

There can be no denying he is a worthy World Champion, winning six of the season’s 17 races, two more than Hamilton and Fernando Alonso and three more than his team-mate Felipe Massa, who obligingly relinquished the lead at the final round of refuelling stops at Interlagos. Raikkonen confessed that he always believed he had a chance of winning the World Championship, even though in the middle of the season he had fallen to 26 points behind the title leader Hamilton, but he had closed the gap to seven points by the start of the Brazilian Grand Prix (October 21).

“For sure we were not in the strongest position at some point of the season, (but) we always believed we can recover, we always believed we can do a better job than the others,” said Raikkonen. “Even in hard times we stick together and never give up. We saw at the end that, although we were a long way behind, we knew we could win the championship.”

At the start of the year he had to watch Massa win two of the first four races as he grappled to get the best out of the Bridgestone tyres, which were new to him after using Michelin last year at McLaren. But victories in the French and British GPs on consecutive weekends reversed that trend and set him on the road towards the front of the field which paid off to such spectacular effect at Interlagos.

Raikkonen thanked his team and Massa for all their efforts. “I have to thank the team. They did a great job, not just today but all year,” he said. “We always worked hard and improved the situation. We had perfect team work. We had a hard fight with Massa all year and he was unfortunate not being in the fight any more. The sponsors have been a big bonus for us, they have done a great job for us, improving the fuel and everything. For sure I am going to enjoy today. I am very happy.”

Raikkonen said he realised he had a chance to win the title after Hamilton had an off-track excursion on the first lap but couldn’t be sure the title was in the bag until the McLaren driver also took the chequered flag in seventh. “I wasn’t really 100% sure; we weren’t sure if someone needed to stop in front of Lewis. He was seventh and, though I finished, there were other people who needed to finish. It took a long time to hear I had finally won.”

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2007
McLaren refuses to give up

An inquiry into the temperature of the petrol in the cars that finished fourth, fifth and sixth in the Brazilian Grand Prix briefly threw the outcome of the race and the final World Championship standings into doubt, opening the possibility that Lewis Hamilton might yet be handed the 2007 World Championship.

A decision to exclude the Williams of Nico Rosberg and the Sauber-BMWs of Robert Kubica and Nick Heidfeld from the results would have lifted Hamilton from seventh to fourth place, giving him the five points that would assure him of the title, by 112 points to Kimi Raikkonen’s 110. The petrol in the three cars was found to have been cooled to a temperature below the level — 10 degrees beneath the ambient temperature — permissible under Formula One’s regulations. The issue came to light during post-race scrutineering, but after five hours of deliberation it was decided that no action would be taken. Later Hamilton’s McLaren team announced their intention to appeal against the decision.

Hamilton left the track before the news of the inquiry was made public, resigned to his failure to become the first rookie champion in Formula One’s history. “I am still quite happy,” he said. “Who’d have thought I’d be ranked No. 2 in the world in my first season in Formula One?” But he promised to come back next year, “fitter, more relaxed, more experienced and even stronger.” He briefly slid off the track during a hectic opening lap, dropping from fourth to eighth place, and then after recovering to sixth he lost a further 12 places on the eighth lap when his computer-controlled semi-automatic gearbox went into neutral, leaving him coasting around the back of the circuit as car after car flashed past. In the 30 seconds it took for his team to work out how to resolve the problem — they told him to reset the gearbox by depressing the clutch and selecting a lower gear — his chance of glory had gone.

“I haven’t had time to analyse what went on,” the British driver said afterwards. “It was my mistake at the beginning of the race. I locked up behind Fernando (Alonso) and I lost a couple of positions. I had the pace to get back but at turn four the car slammed into neutral and we don’t know why yet.” When he got the car going again, he explained, “the team kept telling me on the radio that I could do it, and I believed that. I didn’t give up until I saw the chequered flag.

“We’ve had a few tough weeks but the team did the best job we could and have done a fine job all year. I was runner-up in the World Championship and beat my team-mate, the two-times World Champion (Alonso), in difficult circumstances, and that was my goal at the beginning.

“It’s 22 weeks to the next race and I’ll go into next season with my head held high,” he concluded before disappearing into the towering embrace of the supermodel Naomi Campbell.

Ron Dennis, the McLaren team principal, had said before the race that his cars would be adopting a conservative strategy in order to secure the title, a promise that seemed to be contradicted when Hamilton flew off the road within the opening half-minute. Afterwards he defended the young driver against the suggestion that his inexperience had contributed to the outcome.

“It’s easy to be critical but Lewis was trying to stay out of problems,” he said. “He was trying to be careful and let people past because he had the pace that was required to win the World Championship. The only reason we did not win it was the gearbox problem. That cost us 30 seconds and it was just too much time to make up. This is the first time that Lewis has had a mechanical problem in the race. Fernando hasn’t had a single mechanical problem in a Grand Prix this season. Those are facts.

“I have total admiration for Lewis’s ability to show such a positive attitude over the season as a whole,” he added.

Richard Williams/© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2007