Unflappable Finn

Moving to Ferrari, no doubt, ensured Kimi Raikkonen a reliable and competitive car, but his employers were quick to remind him that joining the prancing horse did not guarantee success and that he would have to earn it.-AP

Kimi Raikkonen might turn people off with his laidback attitude, but not many know that behind his placid exterior is a hard-boiled driver, and a dedicated professional, writes G. Raghunath.

The first race of the 2007 season, the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne, had just ended, and Kimi Raikkonen was rejoicing his victory with his new team Ferrari when Jean Todt ran up to the champion and thrust a mobile phone at him. The Ferrari team principal was visibly excited for two reasons. The first was the Finn’s breath-taking victory, and the second was simply because the seven-time World Champion Michael Schumacher, who had retired at the end of the previou s season after just about failing to add an eighth world title, was on the line, wanting to say a few words to his successor at the Italian team. Raikkonen took the phone, but handed it back quickly to Todt saying the line was “awfully bad” and that he couldn’t hear a word of what Schumacher had spoken.

This act, according to some in the Ferrari camp, smacked of plain superciliousness. But Todt realised then and there that Ferrari’s transition from the ‘Michael Schumacher Era’ was definitely on.

Sixteen races later, when Kimi Raikkonen, with his sixth victory of the season and 15th of his career, crowned himself the World Champion at the Brazilian Grand Prix at Interlagos, Ferrari’s changeover from the Schumacher era was well and truly complete.

In a way, life had offered the imperturbable Finn a second chance, for in 2002 he was expected to take over the role of the lead driver at McLaren-Mercedes after the retirement of his flamboyant countryman and two-time Formula One World Champion Mika Hakkinen. But with reliability issues dogging the cars from the McLaren stable and up against a relentless Michael Schumacher, who was wiping the opposition clean, it was a freefall into despair for Raikkonen.

Strange enough, he had perhaps the worst season of his career when Schumacher was on the wane. That was in 2005 when Kimi registered seven victories, the same as eventual winner, Renault’s Fernando Alonso, and yet finished only second best.

Raikkonen’s performance oscillated between the sublime and the mundane. His splendid drive in the Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka – —Raikkonen started from No. 17 on the grid but methodically overhauled his adversaries before entering into a fascinating duel with Renault’s Giancarlo Fisichella in the final lap, which the Finn won very comfortably, by at least five car lengths – was in sharp contrast to his quick retreat to the pits with a broken drive shaft in the San Marino Grand Prix at Imola.

It was this inconsistency of McLaren that undermined Raikkonen’s chances of winning the world championship. It was also a kind of vagary that was quite unfamiliar to McLaren and Raikkonen couldn’t help being mordant. “We have been testing for quite sometime now, but we have not been able to make progress,” he said caustically.

Moving to Ferrari, no doubt, ensured Raikkonen a reliable and competitive car, but his employers were quick to remind him that joining the prancing horse did not guarantee success and that he would have to earn it.

For some strange reasons Raikkonen, initially at least, struck Todt and Co. as a laidback and easy-going person. The Finn too didn’t help his cause by not staying back late after practice sessions to do the necessary homework with his team, such as assimilating crucial technical data of his car and providing his inputs. Instead, he was the first out of the pits, either bound for his hotel room or some party somewhere. This came as a cultural shock to the Ferrari crew who were so used to sitting up late with Schumacher.

Raikkonen once even risked getting on the wrong side of the Ferrari officials by entering a snowmobile race in Finland while the other drivers were practising strenuously for the 2007 season opener in Australia. And to keep his identity under wraps, he entered the competition under a pseudonym, James Hunt, a former Formula One champion! That he got away with this is another matter.

Raikkonen, very much like the drivers of the old school, considered anything other than sitting in a car prepared by his team and flogging it to its limits outside his brief. Comparisons with Schumacher at that stage are inevitable, but a phlegmatic like Raikkonen, whose emotions aren’t very different in victory or in defeat, couldn’t be bothered.

As the season progressed and Ferrari got to know Raikkonen well, its crew realised that behind the Finn’s placid exterior was a hard-boiled driver and a dedicated professional.

Raikkonen’s victory in the season’s final race, the Brazilian Grand Prix, is a tribute to his focus (he knew he had to win the race to win the championship), his strategy (he did not do anything silly after he pushed his car in front in the 54th lap) and temperament.

The Formula One season in 1986 had a similar script with the championship going down to the final race, the Australian Grand Prix. Alain Prost, behind the wheel of a McLaren, went on to win the race and claim his second world title.

Prost was a bit fortuitous as a spate of tyre bursts dislodged the leaders, which helped him move into second place behind Nelson Piquet (Williams). Following another stroke of luck, when Piquet was imprudently asked by his team to pit for a tyre change with 19 laps to go, Prost went into the lead which he never relinquished.

Raikkonen’s drive at Interlagos was no different. And he had his share of luck when McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton, scrapping madly with team-mate Fernando Alonso for the initiative in the first lap, went off the track and could never really recover. But Raikkonen’s victory, nevertheless, was spectacular.

RAIKKONEN FACTFILE Team: Ferrari Debut: Australian Grand Prix 2001 Maiden win: Malaysian Grand Prix 2003 Races: 122 Championships: One — 2007 Wins: 15 Podium finishes: 48 Pole positions: 14 Career points: 456 Fastest laps: 25