Kimi Räikkönen and the impossible lightness of not being a celebrity
“For me, the ideal would be to drive in Formula 1 and enjoy a normal life”
When it comes down to it, who is Kimi Räikkönen? Perhaps the fastest driver in Formula One racing at the moment? Maybe, but he is still probably not going to take the 2005 Drivers’ World Championship, because his McLaren-Mercedes car has let him down too many times this season, while Fernando Alonso’s Renault keeps on going and delivers podium positions to its driver with Swiss-watch regularity.
Or is Räikkönen “Finland’s biggest A-list celeb”? Undoubtedly that, too. But this is a role Räikkönen would gladly surrender. The biggest star in Finnish sport right now? Probably, yes. Aki Hintsa, the personal physician to the 25-year-old from Espoo regards Räikkönen as a once-in-a-century find: a sporting gold nugget the size of your fist. “Räikkönen’s ability to conceptualise three-dimensional space is quite out of this world. His test results are off the chart, quite the best I have ever seen”, says Hintsa with more than an ounce of admiration in his voice.
Räikkönen just shrugs, however, as he sits in the pit area at the Spa track. He has no truck with test-results. “Aki is a doctor and he doesn’t know anything about driving”, laughs Räikkönen during our interview. “As long as I’m going fast in a car, I really don’t think too much about what it is I’m seeing.” This is nevertheless precisely the response Hintsa expected Räikkönen to offer up. “Kimi is very reluctant to draw attention to himself. However, he is incredibly observant.”
Räikkönen’s way of thinking is very straightforward. When the conversation turns to Alonso and to the fact many consider him [Räikkönen] to be the faster driver of the two, Räikkönen finds little consolation in this. “I want to win”, he says. “And if somebody other than me wins the Drivers’ World Championship, nothing that people think of me can change that. The driver who has the most points at the end of the season is the new champion. Simple as that.”
Räikkönen has been particularly disappointed in this season’s results. “Naturally I’m upset as I’m losing the title for a second time”, he says. “Currently the point margin is even bigger than it was in 2003. This year we had a car which could have potentially enabled us to win races and take the championship, whereas in 2003 the car wasn’t really competitive. However back then it was our reliability that allowed us to climb up the points. If anything, this year has been a bigger disappointment, considering all the potential we had back in March.”
One would think that Räikkönen’s public image is causing him even more grief than the probable failure to win the drivers’ title. Numerous stories of binges and “tired and emotional” behaviour have created an image of a driver who drinks at every opportunity. When Michael Schumacher commented at a press conference in Spa that he would like to have a drink with Räikkönen, the gathering of journalists burst out laughing as everybody pictured them both legless. Räikkönen is likely to carry the reputation of a heavy drinking driver for the rest of his driving career. But how does it make him feel? “At the beginning of my career I was very disappointed in the way the papers wrote about me. I still am, but I refuse to let it change my life. Even if the stories contain a grain of truth, they’re solely used to sell papers. I read the stories and laugh at them”, Räikkönen says.
“It doesn’t seem to matter what I have in my glass, as everybody always assumes I’m drinking alcohol. I’ve been in a nightclub on several occasions and behaved myself, but on the following morning I’ve read from the papers that I’ve been thrown out of this or that nightclub. Many people get bitter if I don’t sign autographs, and they know people who write these stories. However, I refuse to let these things destroy my life.”
Räikkönen has been a celebrity for five years, ever since he broke into Formula One as a much-hyped child prodigy. Yet somehow it seems that he still hasn’t quite accepted his status. Hence the question must be asked: when comparing your life with the lives of your friends out of the spotlight, are you tempted to swap places? “If I could choose, I’d be a normal person but I know it’s not possible”, Räikkönen replies. “In many ways it would be ideal if I could be an F1 driver but lead a normal life. When I go out with my wife or my friends there’s always somebody bothering me at the very moment I want to be left alone.”
Räikkönen doesn’t accept the claim that publicity is one of the very factors that make Formula One drivers the royalty of motor sports. “My life isn’t what the papers make it out to be”, Räikkönen states. “I still do things that I like and if the papers choose to write about them, well, let them do so.”
Räikkönen’s relationship with the media is precisely the same as with everything else he regards as irrelevant to his driving: he just tries to block it out of his mind. “However, there’s a limit to everything”, he says, and he is referring to a recent piece published in the German magazine AutoBild motorsportmagazine. The story claimed that Räikkönen was blind drunk and ran naked through the gardens of Monza during a test session at the Italian track.
The same story was also published in Finland, yet nobody seemed to think such behaviour would have been distinctly unlikely during a two-day stint testing his McLaren-Mercedes. “In this case the magazine ran the story without even bothering to find out if the rumours they heard had any truth to them”, Räikkönen says. “We’re thinking of suing the paper in order to put a stop to articles of this sort being published.”