Early January. The sun has already set at Ferrari’s test track. Darkness is descending very quickly, but Kimi Raikkonen still wants to get his first taste of the 2001 Sauber. The team put in enough fuel for 10 laps, although with visibility disappearing rapidly there is no way he will be able to complete them all.
The Petronas-badged Ferrari engine is fired up, and the young Finn exits the pits, disappearing into the darkness for his first experience with the new car. The wail of the screaming V10 is heard coming under the bridge near the pits as Raikkonen flies past, flat-out, before again disappearing into the darkness of the first corner. He cannot be seen until the braking zone, when the flames from the exhaust briefly light up the darkness.
After a handful of laps, he is within tenths of the time set by Nick Heidfeld earlier in the day, then he radios to the pits to say he cannot see enough to continue driving. There is incredulity at his performance.
The ease with which he is so instantly on the limit leaves smiles across the faces of all the Sauber people present. But the finishing touch to Raikkonen’s night run only became evident when he returned to the pits. He had been so fearless, so quick and so committed wearing a dark-tinted visor on his helmet.
The manner of that first test has continued throughout his debut season, when solid performances have singled him out as a huge future star. When it first became apparent that he was being courted by the Sauber boss late last year, he was not even expected to get a superlicence. Now Raikkonen has become the man of the moment.
At almost every track this year, but especially the ones at which teams do not test, he is invariably among the top five during the first few laps on Friday. That shows a man able to get himself and his car on the limit very quickly – something that Michael Schumacher does with aplomb. Yes, Juan Pablo Montoya has grabbed more headlines, but the young, slim, blond Finn has got more tongues wagging.
Raikkonen immediately got on with the business of impressing in his rookie year
Photo by: Motorsport Images
Despite the plaudits, Raikkonen remains something of an enigma. If people thought they had a difficult time enticing words out of Mika Hakkinen during his early F1 career, then they have yet to meet the new boy at Sauber. He is renowned for his one-word answers, his lack of charisma in press conferences and his reluctance to mix it with the other drivers.
But he does not care. As far as he is concerned, he was put on earth to drive racing cars very quickly. When asked what he thinks about life in the paddock, meeting fans, signing autographs and speaking to all the F1 journalists, his answer is swift and to the point.
“It is a bit boring,” he says. “I don’t like the paddock. I just want to get on with my work.”
“Sometimes I think things have happened too quickly, but at the end of the day I was in the right place at the right time with the right people behind me” Kimi Raikkonen
Raikkonen really does like nothing more than being in the car. He is the ultimate efficient racing driver – all speed, no talk. He is as happy testing as he is getting results, and he has been completely unfazed by all the attention around him. He has been mentioned no end of times as the eventual successor to Michael Schumacher at Ferrari, but he has let none of the comments go to his head.
He even admits that he does sit back sometimes and feel amazed at how he has gone from Formula Renault front-runner to one of F1’s biggest stars in just 12 months.
“Sometimes I think things have happened too quickly, but at the end of the day I was in the right place at the right time with the right people behind me,” he says. “I would never have thought last year that I would be in F1 now.”
Despite Raikkonen’s cool exterior, things have not been so easy for him this year. He may not want to explain how tough the adaption to F1 has been, but he does not pretend that his achievements have been a walk in the park.
“It has been hard, especially because I didn’t really have any expectations this year,” he says. “There is not really one thing that has surprised me, because everything has been hard. There is not one things I have learned specifically, because I’ve had to learn everything. But it is quite a bit like I expected.
The Finnish youngster wasn’t caught up in the excitement around his performances
Photo by: Motorsport Images
“For sure, for the first three or four races it was difficult in qualifying, and I didn’t really get the best out of the car. That was really the most difficult thing. But the season has been better than I was hoping for. I think the team has been surprised. It’s good.”
Circumstances have certainly helped Raikkonen in his jump to F1 with Sauber. Not only has the team enjoyed something of a renaissance this year, but the family atmosphere and the lack of driver politics have made it much easier for him to make his mark.
His set-up is similar to that of his team-mate, Heidfeld. The telemetry traces show Raikkonen sometimes has an advantage in the quick corners, but that Heidfeld is more consistent in the slow stuff.
“It has helped being here with Nick, because it is better than having to do it all by myself,” he admits. “it has been easier being here, with a family team, than go to a bigger team. Here the people are nicer, and that helps.”
But the real test for Raikkonen will come next year. Jacques Villeneuve said recently that it was very easy for a new driver to maintain performance in the first year of F1, when all the newness gives a racer lots of energy and carries them through. The problem comes in the second year, when it is much harder to improve – but expectations are so much higher. Ask Raikkonen if he is worried about the Jenson Button syndrome and he is at his most candid.
“No, not really. I think for him [Jenson] it is more difficult because he was with one the top teams, and now he is not. It is more difficult because if the car is not right then you need to do more with the car.
“I am not worried about it. For sure I have enough energy to keep pushing, and next year I’ll be stronger because I’ll have some experience. I know from this year what I need to do, and it will be easier because I will know what is happening.”
Raikkonen was heavily linked with a move to Ferrari, although it seemed he would have to bide his time a while longer at Sauber
Photo by: Motorsport Images
Speculation links Raikkonen with Ferrari in the long term – although it is almost certain he will stay at Sauber until the end of 2003, when his current contract ends. But ask Raikkonen about Ferrari and he claims there is no attraction other than the fact that it is the most competitive team at the moment. He does not care where he gets to drive in the future, as long as it is with a winning team.
“It is nice to hear Ferrari stories, but I don’t really follow that,” he says. “I would be happy in one of the top teams, and I don’t really mind which it is. I guess it doesn’t matter if it is McLaren, Williams or Ferrari. It is where you have the best chance to win.
Rinland remembers vividly the Finn’s first test in the Sauber at Mugello in Italy last September. His lap times were not that spectacular, but it was clear from the way he got down to work with the car that he was something special
“You never know if Ferrari are going to go down the order, or who is going to come up and who will win. Maybe it just won’t be those three teams in the future, because we have seen how Williams have moved down and then come back up again.”
Raikkonen’s long-term future is open, and the fight for his services when his Sauber contract ends will be fascinating. Anyone who has seen him drive at close quarters knows all about his abilities.
Sauber’s former chief designer, Sergio Rinland, left the team at the start of the year, and he does not mind admitting that his biggest loss in the move is not being able to work with young Raikkonen.
Rinland remembers vividly the Finn’s first test in the Sauber at Mugello in Italy last September. His lap times were not that spectacular, but it was clear from the way he got down to work with the car that he was something special.
“It was just amazing,” remembers Rinland. “You could see it in his eyes that he was the man. He probably didn’t do a very quick lap time, but in sectors of the track you could see the difference between a good driver and someone who was trying very hard. The telemetry showed that in some sectors he was right on it.”
Willingness to push from the off impressed engineer Rinland
Photo by: Motorsport Images
Rinland remembers going out to the back of the Mugello circuit during the test to stand on the banking and observe Raikkonen in action. Michael Schumacher joined him and was instantly impressed by the style and speed of the young Finn.
Schumacher rarely compliments other drivers, but there was no doubting his feelings then. The world champion said: “I observed him, and I evaluated his lap times, and I could see he could be a champion.”
Is this young talents Ferrari’s next champion? Maybe. Is he a future champion? Almost certainly.
Raikkonen got his chance in a top car sooner than expected, when he replaced Hakkinen at McLaren for 2002
Photo by: Motorsport Images
What happened next?
Just one month later, Raikkonen’s future was decided – and in that moment, he couldn’t have been further away from Ferrari.
With double world champion Hakkinen losing motivation and on course to retire – his so-called ‘sabbatical’ would become a permanent one, barring a comeback test at Barcelona in 2007 – McLaren was in the market for a replacement.
Heidfeld, who had won the International F3000 title as a McLaren-supported driver in 1999, was widely expected to be the man who took the seat, while McLaren tester Alex Wurz was also in the frame.
But the man McLaren boss Ron Dennis wanted was Raikkonen. Dennis negotiated the Finn’s exit from his deal at Hinwil – the severance package allowing the team to build a state-of-the-art windtunnel – and he duly lined up alongside David Coulthard for the 2002 season, coming close to a maiden win at Magny-Cours until slipping wide on oil to allow Schumacher through.
The breakthrough win duly came at Malaysia the following year as Raikkonen almost won the 2003 title with a year-old car, but his two-point deficit to Schumacher would be the closest he’d get to title success at McLaren. The team produced F1’s fastest car in 2005, but poor reliability handed the title to the more consistent Fernando Alonso.
And so it was to Ferrari that Raikkonen eventually headed for 2007, fulfilling the prophesy in 2001 that he would take up Schumacher’s mantle. The seven-time world champion was effectively forced aside to make space for the Finn, who won the title at the first time of asking in one of F1’s most legendary comebacks against the McLarens of Alonso and Lewis Hamilton.
Forced out after two disappointing seasons in 2008 and 2009 to make room for Alonso, Raikkonen took a two-year sabbatical in the World Rally Championship before making a winning return with Lotus in 2012. That parlayed into a remarkable Ferrari return for 2014.
Only one more win would come, in the 2018 US GP, before he was replaced for 2019 by Charles Leclerc to see out the remainder of his career in the midfield – back where it all began at the Alfa Romeo-branded Sauber team.
Now 41, Raikkonen is F1’s elder statesman
Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images