Kimi – The Iceman cometh back
He left F1 at the end of 2009 to try his hand at rallying and even NASCAR trucks. Now, after all the endless speculation, you can hear it exclusively from the man himself: Kimi Räikkönen wants to return. The question is… where to?
Kimi Räikkönen, despite a widespread reputation to the contrary, is not an enigma. In fact, he is one of the most straightforward yet misunderstood characters in motor racing. All he wants to do is win – in the most efficient way possible. What could be more logical then that? But some people make the mistake of confusing a lack of communication with a lack of motivation when, in fact, the exact opposite is true. What is perceived to be a monosyllabic outlook on life (once prompting paddock magazine The Red Bulletin to produce a photo feature called ‘The 12 moods of Kimi Raikkonen’ – the catch being that all 12 photos were identical) is not even true: Kimi has plenty to say when he believes that there is something worthwhile to say or – more pertinently – something worthwhile to respond to.
The problem with polite conversation is that it’s meaningless. Let’s be honest: nobody is ever really interested in the weather or how your journey was. And this is just the normal world we’re talking about: imagine what it’s like in the rarefied atmosphere of Formula 1 where the air is as rendolent with self-absorption as it is with designer aftershave and there are more hidden agendas than in the cellar of a stationary shop. So Kimi prefers to maintain a dignified silence about the recent flurry of speculation that has linked him to various Formula 1 teams – although he admits that a move back is possible. But lots of things are possible, including life on Mars, and the truth of the matter is that nothing has been agreed for 2012. Kimi Raikkonen’s diary for next year is blank… for the moment at least. “For now there’s really nothing and before I have anything 100 per cent confirmed, there’s no point in talking,” he points out with his characteristic honesty. Part of the reason why Kimi doesn’t always say very much is because he doesn’t like lying.
The currency of Formula 1 – much to Kimi’s bemusement – is rumour. You have two choices: either play the game, fuel the fire and start the gradual process of disappearing up your own rectum, or stay well out of it. But there is a third option, too: just say what you mean and try to rise above the politicking. However, a problem exists with that as well. Chances are that whatever you say, someone at some point will try to use it against you. The effort would be far better invested in the driving, which of course is the only reason why you’re here in the first place. “The bullshit?” says Kimi, when asked about the media hype. “Ha! It’s normal I suppose; just part of the world we live in. They’re always going to write it, so who cares? I never really care what people say, because you can’t change it. In fact, if you try to change it this only makes it worse, so why bother putting in the effort trying? If you say: ‘No, it wasn’t like that – actually it was like this,’ they only get ideas about writing more and then the whole thing gets bigger and bigger. But does it matter if it’s true or not? Nobody cares.” Dishonesty and injustice: these are the two things Kimi most objects to. The paradox of being an internationally recognised celebrity with a huge personal fortune is that you find yourself in a very isolated position. It’s hard to know who you can trust and who is just interested in a bit of tabloid sensationalism.
It’s one of the reason – although not the main one – why Kimi switched to the World Rally Championship at the start of 2010. “I got the feeling from the start that the people involved in rallying are more interested in the sport and what is happening on the stages, rather than creating bullshit stories with big headlines outside it,” he points out. “In Formula 1, you can say one thing and then the media can completely misinterpret that and make a big story with ‘he said this’ on it – even though it’s simply not true. They often write more about other things than the sport itself. There’s less of that in rallying, it’s a different way of thinking.”
But Kimi agrees it’s no surprise that people are eager to know what’s happening next in his world. It could, after all, be the key move in the 2012 Formula 1 driver market, with so many people currently distracted by the prospect of a Red Bull or Ferrari seat in 2013 – not to mention Mercedes. It’s not something that Kimi will be drawn on, but he’d be a prime candidate for both Red Bull and Mercedes (the latter being a brand that is constantly trying to make itself ‘cooler’) in 2013 – although a move back to his old teams, McLaren or Ferrari, would be unlikely to say the least. In the meantime, it’s no secret that he’s visited Williams, and Renault’s situation is still unclear as Robert Kubica continues his recovery. That’s if Kimi moves anywhere at all: he could, if he felt like it, just stop and do nothing, or continue rallying. Both are very real possibilities.
“There are many different options and of course a lot speculation – but that’s normal”, he says. “Most of it is news to me though. Look, I could tell you that I’m going to do NASCAR and you could report it, but it might not happen and I could be bullshitting. Or I could say that I’m going to do banger racing, and then you wouldn’t believe me. But in the end you might be surprised… so you see? Until something is certain, there’s no point in speculating because it could go any way. To be honest I don’t know myself yet. People probably talk too much when they should be concentrating on other things”. That’s the way Kimi sees it, and you know what? He’s actually right. One top driver, who is well known for being very media-savvy, stated recently that he envied Kimi. “He’s got it right from the start, hasn’t he?” said this person.
“I wish I could be like Kimi and just concentrate on the driving, without any distractions. Some people say he’s stupid but he knows exactly what he’s doing. He’s very clever”. If you were climbing Mount Everest – which is reckoned anecdotally to be the greatest challenge of modern times- you wouldn’t waste time on unnecessary chitchat. Equally, you wouldn’t speculate too much about whether or not you were going to reach the summit until you were very nearly there. And yet far more people have successfully climbed Everest than have won the Formula 1 world championship.
Kimi is one of the 32 people who have achieved the latter, albeit und circumstances that he admits were slightly surreal. We all remember three drivers going into that final race with a chance at the title and Kimi being the first person to claim it from third in the standings since Giuseppe Farina in 1950. An impressive feat but, for Kimi, it was paradoxically straightforward because all he had to do was drive quickly and win the race: there were no other complicating factors. And that is the sort of task at which the Iceman performs to his brilliant best. “I’m not sure if winning the championship is my very best memory, but it’s one of the best memories, certainly” he says, surprisingly.
“We started well and then had quite difficult moment in the middle of the year, but then we found our way again and won. For sure, we could have done some things differently, but it was our first year. And while it was the best car, it also took time to get the best out of it. It’s like that sometimes: our McLaren in 2005 was very good as well, but it couldn’t finish a race…” If Kimi does return to Formula 1, he may not have the option of the best car any more: not a McLaren, Ferrari or RedBull. But what this means is that he’ll have nothing else to think about other than going as fast as possible and showing what the car can do: something that would motivate both him and his team. One of Kimi’s most impressive seasons was his debut year with the understated Sauber, resulting in what turned out to be the team’s best ever finish of fourth in the constructors’s standings, prior to BMW’s involvement.
And if Kimi did come back, he’d perhaps be a bit less bothered than before about having the very best equipment. “Of course, you always want a winning car, a top car – but as we’ve seen this year there’s only one team who have a top car,” he says. “It’s not like you can choose or know. Some years some teams make a good car, other years their car is not so good. There are very small differences between a good car and a bad car. In the end, you just have to work at it”. The one thing that Kimi values more than anything else though is his own freedom. The minute he feels that he is being painted into a corner, he’ll happily go and trample all over the canvas. in 2009, Kimi was the second-highest paid sportsman in the world, just after Tiger Woods, but even that wasn’t enough to keep him in Formula 1 once he felt he was being marginalised (remember how much he hates dishonesty and injustice). There were a number of options he turned down in 2010, including one that was extremely lucrative: it’s not the money that motivates him.
Instead it’s the idea of pushing himself towards a brand new challenge… which happened to be rallying. “I was always curious to know if I could stay on the road and keep pushing,” he says of his decision to switch to the World Rally Championship. “It’s very different from F1. So I was interested to know if I could do this too, because when you see the guys who are doing it all the time, they make it look easy. In fact, it’s one of the hardest things you can do. Every corner is different, and even two corners that have exactly the same pace note – like ‘right two’ – can be completely different. If you get it wrong, there’s a tree of a rock rather than a gravel trap. It’s something I wanted try, but I don’t have to be so serious about it. If I feel like I don’t want to do it any more I can stop today.” Conclusion: it’s even harder to beat Sébastien Loeb than it is to beat Sebastian Vettel.
Kimi’s appetite for mud was whetted when he entered an Abarth Grande Punto S2000 in the 2009 Rally Finland (his choice of car dictated by his contract with the Fiat Group) and ran as high as third class before crashing out in spectacular fashion. His older brother Rami is also a rally driver, so it runs in the family. The hardest thing for Kimi to get used to has been the pace notes. It’s not surprising really: when Kimi was in Formula 1, he was not one of those drivers who was happy to receive various radio messages throughout the race: he tended to look at them as an unwelcome distraction that put him off the real job of driving. Although, to be fair, that’s Kimi’s view of most things.
Unlike Formula 1, in-season testing is allowed in the World Rally Championship. What few people realise is that during these tests, when the teams run up and down on the same bit of raod, Kimi has been comfortably quicker than his team-mates – and this include Sébastien Loeb and Sébastien Ogier, the two fastest drivers in the World Rally Championship. But that’s because Kimi knows exactly where he’s going and can rely on his unparalleled reflexes rather than trusting someone else to tell him what to do. Benoit Nogier, Kimi’s team manager in rallying, comments: “In terms of speed, I would say that Kimi is pretty phenomenal. There’s nothing that he’s scared of. He’s got a very instinctive feel for a car; you can see exactly why he’s a champion. But in some areas he can improve; I think that’s normal for someone with his level of experience. In some ways, coming from Formula 1 makes it harder as you arrive with set ideas about how a car should be driven. You have to free your mind and start again.”
This is something that Kimi has always been remarkably good at. As well as rallying, he’s tried NASCAR this year and Peugeot’s 908 Le Mans racer, which, as he explains, was like driving a high-powered goldfish bowl. “The Le Mans car was interesting but, to be honest, the steering was quite shit and the widescreen was really strange – it sort of distort the view… maybe because it’s very round,” says Kimi. “I can’t imagine what it’s like with oil and mess on it after you’ve been racing for a long time. But I enjoyed the experience and the car felt good, even though I’m told that it had less power compared to previous years. I’ hadn’t really driven on a circuit for ages apart from the NASCAR race, but that was on an oval, so it was completely different.”
It’s doing something different that inspires Kimi these days: it’s the chance to be himself. That doesn’t mean he’s living the playboy lifestyle that many people have erroneously attributed to him; it’s more that he’s now got the opportunity to taste a bit of normality. Is that too much to ask? It might come as a surprise, for example, to learn that Kimi’s personal transport of choice is a diesel Volkswagen Caravelle van, which he uses far more often than his other more exotic cars. But it underlines the point that appearance and reality don’t always match up: a fact that the people who question him without even knowing him would do well to remember.
A lot has been said about his motivation. You want to know the truth? The Finn’s motivation is sky-high at the moment: he has quietly intensified his fitness and training regime in order to be in the best possible condition to take any opportunity that come his way. “I like having different challenges, that’s for sure,” Kimi adds. “I’ve got a lot of plans, but I don’t like to talk about them as I’m not sure if any of them are going to work out.” IT’s the story of all our lives; in the end, Formula 1 world champions are no different to anyone else. On the subject of F1 champions, when Sebastian Vettel took his 18th career victory at this year’s Italian GP to draw level with Kimi’s score, he was asked what the landmark meant to him. He replied that it was a good achievement, but that he suspected Kimi still had a few more F1 wins in him…
“I don’t know about that,” Kimi says, laughing. “It depends on what happens in the future. First of all, like were saying earlier on, in F1 you need a good package. In a shit car you’ll never win, even if you drive better than you have ever driven in your life. That’s the fact, and there’s no way out of it.” In that regard, things haven’t changed much over the past tw years – interestingly, Kimi points out that in rallying the cars are much more equal – but there are a lot of things that are new in Formula 1 compared to when the Iceman left at the end of 2009. There is the DRS and the Pirelli tyres for instance, which have had a profound effect on the on-track action. Overtaking is something that Kimi will definitely have missed, as the only time it happens on a rally is when things have gone seriously wrong.
“It always used to be very difficult to overtake in Formula 1, particularly at the front because the cars are faster and there wasn’t a big difference between the speeds,” explains Kimi. “It looks easier now, but at least they get overtaking: in some of the races before, there was no overtaking at all. The tyres look as if they have made it really interesting now because of the way they drop away.” At moment like this, Kimi sounds almost like a man who is contemplating an imminent return, although in the past he’s brushed off any suggestion that he’s missed F1: “If I missed it,” he commented last year, “I’d be there now.”
But times change, even if Kimi doesn’t. And he sitll hasn’t answered that question about whether or not Vettel’s prediction was correct. Sebastian Vettel, don’t forget, knows Kimi pretty well as they live close to each other in Switzerland and frequently play badminton together: often with Kimi and his trainer Mark Arnall taking on Vettel and his trainer.
There’s mutual respect between the two drivers, particularly as Vettel – who went out to watch the 2009 Rally Finland – is awestruck by anyone brave enough to take on the challenge of firing a turbocharged metal missile through a special stage in forest. So how about it? “Ah… who knows. But what’s for sure is that Sebastian himself will keep winning many more grands prixs,” concludes Kimi. “You could see that from the start. He’s a nice guy in a good team, and if they carry on making a winning car, then he’ll keep on winning. Anyway, he might keep on winning in Formula 1 but I can tell you one thing: he won’t win all the time when it comes to badminton.”