Life in the fast lane
The reigning Formula One world champion Kimi Räikkönen is very much his own man. Ice-cool behind the wheel, off the track he brings to mind the playboy days of James Hunt – if he wants to go powerboating dressed as a gorilla in his spare time, that’s exactly what he’ll do.
There was a moment during the Canadian Grand Prix last month that seemed to sum up the relaxed character of Kimi Räikkönen, the reigning Formula One world champion. Lewis Hamilton had just smashed into the back of Räikkönen’s Ferrari in a moment of madness while exiting the pit lane. Hamilton had failed to spot a red light indicating that drivers must wait while the safety car was deployed; he had also, amazingly, failed to spot Räikkönen’s stationary Ferrari blocking the pit lane exit. The result: both cars damaged beyond repair. Räikkönen, at that stage neck-and-neck with Hamilton in the championship with two wins each, walked over to his rival, and – instead of waving his fists, as other drivers might have done – calmly tapped the 23-year-old on the shoulder and helpfully pointed out the red light, as if saying to a child, ‘If you see one of those, it means you have to stop.’ Räikkönen later told me, ‘I never get involved in arguments.’ His unflappable style has won him the reputation as the coolest man in his sport.
I catch up with Räikkönen at the Paul Ricard circuit near Marseilles at a testing session for the Monaco Grand Prix. As the engine revs subside and peace settles on the Provencal countryside, Räikkönen, 28, emerges wearing jeans, fleece and dark glasses. He is barely recognizable without his scarlet Ferrari overalls. Just as he stole up on Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso late last season and snatched the world title from Hamilton by a single point, so too is his personal demeanour low-key. With Arctic-blue-green eyes and a permafrosted expression, Räikkönen is known as ‘the ice man’ for his reserve and insouciance. By reputation aloof, enigmatic and monosyllabic, he is said to prefer to let his driving do the talking, but proves to be surprisingly engaging. Räikkönen’s life away from the track is only slightly slower than his reputation on it. Asked which racers have inspired them, most Formula One drivers would reply ‘Ayrton Senna’ or ‘Michael Schumacher’.
Räikkönen, though, looks to the late James Hunt, the eccentric, charismatic British ace and budgerigar breeder whose world title in 1976 came three years before Räikkönen was born. Hunt lived life flat-out, loved tennis, played the piano, dated glamorous women and would often grace formal events in bare feet. Critics accused him of not taking motor racing seriously. Is the same true of Räikkönen? ‘I don’t have heroes,’ he says, ‘but Hunt had a different way about him. I think that that was a nice way. He did the good things he was supposed to do, but he just lived in a different way to many others.’ Now in his second year with Ferrari, Räikkönen clearly feels far more comfortable than he did at his previous team, McLaren, and not merely because of the reputed annual salary of £25 million that Ferrari pays him (Hamilton is on a comparatively humble £75 million over five years). His five seasons at McLaren produced little more than blown engines and frustration. In 2002 he retired from 11 out of 17 races. In 2004, after the first seven rounds, he had collected just one point to Schumacher’s 60. Yet he bore the succession of mechanical glitches with typical stoicism.
There was off-track frustration, too. Photographs of an apparently alcoholically inconvenienced Räikkönen kept appearing in the media, at odds with McLaren’s strict lifestyle protocols. In one glorious James Hunt moment, the Spanish press reported that Räikkönen was found asleep outside a bar clutching an inflatable dolphin (dolphins occupy the same niche in the Finnish psyche as sheep do elsewhere in Europe). In January 2005 a story appeared about how Räikkönen stunned onlookers by cavorting with a lap dancer at a club in Mayfair, before launching into his own strip show. (Heikki Kulta, Finland’s pre-eminent Formula One journalist and a family friend of Räikkönen, dismisses such incidents: ‘Kimi is living like a normal Finn!’) Ron Dennis, McLaren’s team boss, failed to see the funny side and wrote to Räikkönen, upbraiding him. In life as in engineering, Dennis believes in zero tolerance. ‘That’s Ron’s way,’ Räikkönen laughs. ‘Maybe he tries to push people to do a better job, but it didn’t especially work for me. I don’t need anybody pushing me. I know if I am doing the best I can or not.’
Räikkönen has always maintained that his personal life is no one’s business, and has no bearing on his abilities as a racing driver. But he admits that things got ‘quite bad’ with McLaren. ‘The newspapers tried to create a fight between me and the team. But now, maybe because I won the championship or because Ferrari leaves me to live how I want, it’s better. I don’t mind if people write things about me. I don’t have anything that would hurt me enough to make me change my life. ‘What I enjoy, and what they [Ferrari] respect,’ he continues, ‘is that as long as I do my work and they don’t have anything to complain about, they leave my private life alone. It is not like there’s someone behind my back all the time, asking, “What time do you get to sleep?”‘ Thanks to Ferrari’s long leash, Räikkönen has been able to indulge his quirky extra-curricular interests. Last March, days before his Ferrari debut, he won a snowmobile competition in Finland, racing under the pseudonym ‘James Hunt’. A week later he won the Australian Grand Prix. ‘James Hunt’ made another appearance later in the year, competing in a powerboat race in Hanko, Finland, dressed in a gorilla costume. Räikkönen unwinds by playing sports that combine some or all of the following elements: snow, ice, speed and danger. He loves skiing, skidooing and snowboarding, and plays ice hockey four times a week. He yearns to have a crack at ski-jumping, although his paymasters at Ferrari might draw the line there.
Räikkönen’s fans are drawn to his courage and raw talent. ‘He’s as brave as a lion, and on his day there is no one quicker,’ says Kevin Garside, The Daily Telegraph’s motor sport correspondent. Yet he remains less well loved than the boyish, personable Hamilton or the fiery Alonso. ‘He could be more effusive,’ Garside adds. Räikkönen has failed to win Finland’s equivalent of Sports Personality of the Year for the past three years – most recently losing out to a cross-country skier and a javelin champion. Not that he is unpopular at home. But in a nation that has produced two other Formula One world champions – Keke Rosberg and Mika Häkkinen – and many leading rally drivers, Räikkönen’s achievements are perhaps taken for granted, even though Kulta insists that ‘Kimi is by far the best racing driver Finland has ever produced.’ What makes Finnish drivers so good? ‘Our roads and long winters,’ Kulta says. ‘You really have to be a good driver to survive in Finland. It is always slippery and bumpy.’ Räikkönen lives in Finland (just outside Helsinki) and Switzerland (in Wollerau near Zürich) with his wife of four years, Jenni Dahlman, a former fashion model and Miss Scandinavia, and their dogs, Ajax, an alsatian, and Pepe, a Jack Russell. His life seems modest by F1 standards. While rival drivers amass property portfolios and stock up on sports cars, yachts and jets, Räikkönen drives nothing more ostentatious than a Fiat 500. ‘It’s easy to park and nice to drive,’ he says. At home, he does the cooking: reindeer meat, pasta and ‘a lot of rice and fish’. He shops for ingredients himself, carefully avoiding the supermarket crowds. After dark, he passes the long winter nights with friends, bonding over Smirnoff and karaoke.
How does he find time for Ferrari’s demanding training regime? ‘The fitness required to drive a Formula One car is a total-body thing,’ Mark Arnall, Räikkönen’s trainer and physio, says. ‘You need a level of fitness to get through a race weekend. The fitter you are, the quicker you recover, adapt to temperature changes and handle the hydration situation. Then you have the G-forces on the body. The neck tends to develop through the driving. There is a lot of spinal compression due to sitting low to the ground. The whole stability side of things comes into play. We do a lot of work on the hips, forearms…’ A lot of work, but not too much. ‘If I feel like it, I train,’ Räikkönen says. ‘If not, I do more or less what I feel like. I don’t have schedules. I never do any planning. I hate planning.’ ‘Kimi is extremely talented,’ Bernie Ecclestone, who controls F1, tells me. ‘The trouble is, he’s not as dedicated as Ayrton Senna was, or as Lewis Hamilton is, for whom it is the end of the world if something goes wrong. I don’t think Kimi is prepared to give up what Senna gave up; Senna would live in a one-bedroom flat in London in order to race. But Kimi is his own man, and that’s that.’
Räikkönen owes his success, in part, to a curious Finnish landmark: the outside lavatory of the family home in the Helsinki suburb of Espoo. Kimi and his elder brother, Rami, grew up in a 33sq m house built by their great-grandfather. Their father, Matti, drove a steamroller; their mother, Paula, worked in the state pensions office. As small boys Kimi and Rami took turns to drive a go-kart around a nearby rubbish dump. ‘We had big fights over who drove it longer,’ Räikkönen says. The Räikkönens needed a second kart. But how to pay for it? Matti had already taken on part-time work as a taxi driver and nightclub bouncer to fund his sons’ motorsport aspirations, and what spare cash there was had been put aside to replace the outside loo with an indoor one. But desperate times call for desperate measures, and it was agreed the indoor loo should be sacrificed for a kart. ‘For us, having an outside toilet was normal,’ Räikkönen shrugs. ‘That’s what we always had, and, well, it wakes you up in the morning in the winter. So that was the decision, and it certainly helped.’ Räikkönen’s parents now luxuriate in a seaside villa, but they still own the house in Espoo, where the family seat still stands proudly in the garden.
Räikkönen advanced into Formula One via Formula Renault, a feeder tier. After only one year, in 2000 he became test driver to the Sauber F1 team. So impressed was the team boss, Peter Sauber, with Räikkönen’s pace that he signed up the Finn as a full-time race driver, even though Räikkönen was the least experienced racer ever to compete in Formula One, with only 23 starts on his cv. He finished sixth in his debut race and 10th in his first world championship. Then he joined McLaren, but seemed dogged by bad luck. ‘It’s not luck,’ Chris Dyer, Räikkönen’s race engineer at Ferrari, says. ‘There is no luck involved in building and running a reliable race car. The whole objective is to get rid of luck.’
Räikkönen’s present F2008 Ferrari is a sensational piece of technology. Moulded from carbon fibre and honeycomb composite, powered by a 95kg, 2.398-litre V8 engine bridled by a ‘semi-automatic, sequential, electronically controlled gearbox and quickshift’ which is built to last 2,500km, the car is a daisychain of 8,000 bespoke components. With water, lubricant and driver, it weighs 600kg, and, depending on the aerodynamic ‘package’, can theoretically hit 400km/h in a straight line, although no F1 circuit would permit such a speed because it would fly off as soon as you turned a corner. It is also a thirsty beast: one litre of fuel will only get you two to three kilometres. Ferrari are confident it will deliver the goods at this weekend’s British Grand Prix – Räikkönen won the race last year – although getting it to perform at its best is a complex business. Räikkönen’s team of dedicated engineers measure the performance of both car and driver in hundreds of different ways. But no amount of data-crunching can replace feeling your way around a circuit by the seat of your pants. The team therefore relies on Räikkönen’s own personal ‘feedback’.
‘Kimi is very good at identifying how to make the car go faster,’ Dyer says. ‘Sometimes it’s not clear what the right solution is. We have simulation tools that can help us, but ultimately what counts is what happens on the track.’ Dyer was once given a ride in an adapted three-seater F1 car with Michael Schumacher at the wheel. It wasn’t so much the acceleration and speed that struck him as the braking. ‘It was like running through your back yard and hitting a glass door,’ he says. ‘It seemed to be over in an instant. You hardly had time to think what you felt on one corner before you hit the next. When we debrief the drivers, they analyse in great detail what takes place in an instant. They’ll complain that one gear shift isn’t right and you look at the data and you see it took 25 milliseconds instead of 15. They have a sensitivity that the rest of us just don’t understand.’
Dyer worked with Michael Schumacher, who won five of his seven world titles with Ferrari. ‘Kimi is more relaxed than Michael, and less concerned about technical details. If we turn up with a new part, Kimi will say, “Let’s throw it on and see what happens”; Michael would have wanted to know what the simulation tests said. What you see is what you get with Kimi: he never plays games. But on the track, he is very strong mentally. He is not affected by pressure. I ask Räikkönen what he has learnt from Formula One. ‘Be yourself,’ he says. ‘If you try to be someone else, it won’t work. Whatever you do, you are not going to make everyone happy.’ He sees no reason to change his working methods, which seem to be reaping such rewards. ‘When you don’t need to think too much, it is usually the right way,’ he smiles. ‘Sometimes when you have difficult races and you think about it and you try hard, it just gets worse and worse.’
Rumours persist that the Räikkönen era will be much shorter than the Schumacher (or Hunt) one, and that he may retire next year. A German newspaper recently quoted a friend as saying, ‘Kimi loves the driving and hates everything else about Formula One. But the racetrack exerts a strong pull. ‘As long as I enjoy racing, I will keep doing it,’ Räikkönen tells me. ‘After that, I don’t have any plans. One day I want to have a family and kids. But it is not the right time now. I am travelling so much. When you have kids, it would be nice to see them.’