Raikkonen's lead goes up in plume of smoke

McLaren-Mercedes driver Kimi Raikkonen sits near the track after his car conked out. The Finn was leading the race when this incident happened.-Pic. AFP

Kimi Raikkonen's hopes raised by his first career pole went up in a sudden plume of smoke on that Sunday at the European Grand Prix.

The McLaren-Mercedes driver, in a close battle for the driver's title with Michael Schumacher, led the race until white smoke began pouring out of his car's rear as he turned into the 26th lap.

The Finn's engine failed and his comments to reporters were laced with obscenities afterwords.

"It's a shame to have a weekend like this — you're the fastest, then you can't finish,'' he said.

At first, the 23-year-old Finn looked dejected as he was watching through a wire fence as Ralf Schumacher rolled to victory in his BMW Williams. It was the first time all season Raikkonen's Mercedes failed him.

Raikkonen was given sympathetic hugs and handshakes from his crew when he visited his McLaren stand in street clothes just before the end of the race, but he still couldn't contain his disappointment.

"I got a magnificent start and that it was easy. I would have won easy,'' said Raikkonen. His only consolation was that Michael Schumacher was bumped by Williams driver Juan Pablo Montoya on the 43rd lap, spinning out and settling for fifth.

The Ferrari driver earned four points and now has 58, seven better than his McLaren rival.

"The gap to Michael can easily be closed with a good result,'' the Finn said. It was all supposed to be different when he raced to the grid's front in Saturday's qualifying, making his debut at the pole just as countryman and two-time world champion Mika Hakkinen did at Nuerburgring in 1997.

That was until the engine blew, surprising him as the white smoke spreading out behind his back flap.

"The car was feeling great. I had no indication it was going to happen,'' he said.

Raikkonen replaced Hakkinen at McLaren in 2002 after Hakkinen retired and the young Finn has challenged Schumacher, a five-time world champion, all season long beginning with his triumph at the Malaysian Grand Prix. But his McLaren-Mercedes has always been reliable this year.

He has been in the top three in six of the eight races so far this season, hanging onto his lead in the standings until Schumacher's victory at Canada pushed him ahead 54-51. Raikkonen settled for sixth after a poor start.

Previously he dominated the Formula Renault series in 2000, getting nine pole positions in 13 races.

"It was pretty much everywhere,'' said Raikkonen about his ability to gain the poles before joining the bigger series.

The McLaren driver has completed only 23 real car races when he entered Formula One in 2001 for Sauber-Petronas. He earned points in his first GP in Australia, finishing sixth.