For almost a decade, the name “Kimi” has been shorthand for outrageous F1 speed and car control. This year, with a switch to the Red Bull Junior World Rally Team, he reckons he´s taken on the biggest challenge of his career.
The carbon fibre disc brakes on his Formula-One Ferrari have barely cooled down, but already Kimi Räikkönen has moved on to something new: a drive for the very same Red Bull Citroen World Rally team that has just taken Sebastien Loeb to his sixth consecutive world title. The arrival of Räikkönen is a huge coup for the World Rally Championship: for all his occasionally mute press conference performances, the guy´s a superstar. And while some might question the move from the “pinnacle of motorsport” into a parallel universe of mud and trees and ice and snow rather than lap upon lap of pristine tarmac, the man himself has no doubts: this is a hugely serious attempt On an equally prestigious world series, one which he´ll attack with all the commitment for which he became famed in F1.
So, Kimi, let’s talk dirty. What’s the earliest rally car you can remember?
My brother’s Ford Escort. Of course, as a good Finn, I saw rally cars on TV from an early age. I liked Ari Vatanen and Juha Kankkunen’s Peugeot 205 T16s the best. The first rally I actually went to must have been the 1991 1000 Lakes Rally, which Kankkunen won in a Lancia Delta Integrale.
Were rally drivers your childhood heroes?
I didn’t have any childhood heroes, I was a fan of the sport, not individual drivers. During my childhood, Kankkunen, for example, was a world- class driver so he could have been an idol. I’ve met him since then. He’s still got a Peugeot 205 at home and a Group B Audi Quattro from the 1980s. He might even lend it to me if I asked nicely.
Was it inevitable that you would end up on the racetrack?
I always wanted to give rallying a shot, but I did get into F1 very quickly [Räikkönen was only 21 when he made his F1 debut, for the Red Bull Sauber team at the Australian GP, scoring a point for sixth place]. So it became difficult to move sideways into rallying, which meant I just had to lump it. I didn’t get the chance until very late – I was almost 30 [Räikkönen competed in the 2009 Rally Finland, in a Fiat Grande Punto Abarth]. I also think F1 helps you as a rally driver and vice versa.
But it would be a bit ungrateful to say that you were biding your time for nine years in F1 and had to become World Champion so that you could ultimately become a rally driver?
That’s just how my career has worked out. Now it’s the right time to go for it with the right people and the right car for however long. I did negotiate with another F1 team for next season, but we couldn’t agree 100 per cent. Then Red Bull came and made me an offer to drive in the WRC for a season. It felt like the right thing to do straight away.
A lot of racing drivers in your position would have just bought themselves a world rally car and had some fun in it. But you’ve joined the Citroen Junior Team for a whole season where you’ll be up against Sébastien Loeb, the best rally driver in the history of the sport. Haven’t you made things difficult for yourself?
It’s definitely the biggest challenge yet. I’ve got to learn everything from scratch. But I want the challenge. I have to get to know the car, the rallies, how to work with my co-driver [Kai Lindström], everything. I’m looking forward to it. And you’ve got to set yourself some competition if you really want to know how good you are. I’ll still be able to drive around the forest in a private rally car.
But when you entered the WRC last year, at the Rally Finland, it was a much more professional effort compared with other well-known converts.
If you’re going to do something, do it with the best team. My car’s been prepared by Tommi Mäkinen’s team; these guys are super professional. Of course it’s a smaller operation than an F1 team, but they’re professionals. Even though the driver plays a bigger overall role in rallying than in F1, the best driver won’t win in a bad car. That’s why I wanted an experienced co-driver so at least one of us would know what he was doing. I met Kai Lindström through Tommi and we were ice spies for Chris Atkinson during the 2006 Monte Carlo rally. Kai is outstanding; he and Tommi were World Champions together. Kai was also the one to make first contact with Citroën Sport.
Does entering the World Rally Championship feel a bit like it felt when you first test-drove for Sauber F1 in 2000?
Yes, I’m finding a bit of the young Kimi in me again. A world rally car is quicker and tougher than the S2000 car I drove last year on the Rally Finland; it’s 10 times better to drive and has more power. It’s why you can still come out of critical situations. If the Fiat ever went sideways with its non-turbo engine, it was game over.
So what about rolling the car in Finland last year?
It wasn’t because I was going too fast! It was the opposite. The car had already begun falling apart, so I just wanted to get it to the service park. The Fiat definitely wasn’t the quickest car in the S2000 class, nor the most stable. My line going into the left-hand turn was maybe 2m off and we turned over.
Why was your line bad?
I was driving with my eyes and not my ears. But in rallying you’ve got to pay 100 per cent attention to what your co-driver says.
Is that something you still have to learn to do?
It is. The driving itself shouldn’t be too much of a problem. If you know the special stage, there’ll hardly be any difference usually. What makes the difference is the pacenotes [the co-driver’s notes on the road conditions for each stage of the rally] and your trust. That’s my main disadvantage starting out – I only know the Arctic Rally and Rally Finland. I’ve got to work the rest of the events out for myself.
Can you use other crews’ pacenotes?
It’s always better to have your own. If you want to be really fast, you’ve got to have trust. And you’ll never have complete trust in someone else’s notes. Does it help to follow other drivers’ tracks to get your bearings? No. There’s no way of knowing what the car in front of you might have done. You’ve got to do what the co-driver tells you.
When was your first roll?
I was 14. I rolled my brother’s Lada. We had a 3km track close to home. Marcus Grönholm [Finland’s two-time world rally champion] also trained there. I over-braked the rear axle and rolled twice. The roll-bar [the car’s internal safety cage] also broke.
Your brother Rami was seen as a great rallying talent. Does he still drive?
No, he’s a family man now. One year he was runner- up to Mikko Hirvonen [runner-up in the 2008 and 2009 World Rally Championships].
Have your nephews caught the motorsport bug?
Absolutely! They’re only three and four and they already go karting. I’ve bought them a quad bike.
Are you a good co-driver?
No. I’ve been co-driver to Tommi Mäkinen [four- time World Rally Champion] once. I have complete confidence in him, but I wouldn’t want to repeat the experience. Maybe I’ll sit alongside Loeb during a test. I don’t think he’d do the same for me.
Are you expecting a couple of rolls next year?
Of course. Over the course of the WRC there are bound to be a couple of shunts. Everyone makes mistakes in this sport and, as a rule, a mistake usually means you wreck the car. How many cars must Jari-Matti Latvala [WRC winner] and Hirvonen have destroyed before they won their first World Championship rally? The only driver who hasn’t rolled is Loeb. He’s an exception.
Do you think you’ll be more intuitive on tarmac or gravel surfaces?
We’ve been amazingly fast on gravel, but tarmac will probably be more my thing. Snow will be the hardest. Your lines have got to be spot-on in the snow, whereas on tarmac it’s no big deal if you brake a meter too late and have to turn more sharply. You have to be able to read the gravel. On some types of gravel you’ve got incredible grip with rally tyres and on others you haven’t.
What sort of results are you expecting?
The first few rallies are bound to be tough. Until I know how fast the other drivers are, I’m holding back on any personal expectations. I’m sure I won’t manage to keep up with the top four (Loeb, Dani Sordo, Hirvonen, Latvala).
When you look back on your F1 career, is there a single moment you value above all others?
In F1, every lap is more or less the same. It’s more difficult if it rains, but otherwise it soon becomes routine. In rallying, every corner or hill might be different from what you expected. The most fun I’ve had in recent years was fooling around with friends on snow-scooters, for example. I’d find it difficult to pick a single moment from the last nine years.
How about this as a moment to go down in history? Kimi Räikkönen overtaking Giancarlo Fisichella on the outside at Suzuka on the last lap of the 2005 Japanese GP, to win the race?
Yeah, that was really good.
The 2009 Ferrari must have been really difficult to drive when we see how badly Giancarlo Fisichella struggled when he stepped in for the injured Felipe Massa. Not to mention [Ferrari test driver] Luca Badoer.
The car wasn’t bad. It just didn’t have enough grip. It was hard to drive but I liked the 09 Ferrari more than the 08. I didn’t cope too badly [Räikkönen won the 2009 Belgian GP]. But it made Fisichella age 10 years in two races!
If you couldn’t get a neutrally balanced car, would you prefer oversteer or understeer [a car that has more or less front/rear grip]?
I’ve never liked understeer. How can you push the car if you don’t know whether it’s going to steer? You lose time on a circuit but in rallying, you end up in the trees because you run out of space.
How much communication does motorsport need?
As a driver, there are some things you just can’t communicate. No F1 driver in the world can talk to an aerodynamics engineer on an equal footing because they have completely different levels of understanding. All you can do is tell your race engineer what you’d ideally like. Mechanics are important too but they do what the engineers tell them to. So your communication is limited to two or, at most three, people in the team. And then what’s made of your input depends on the team.
In rallying, you’ll sometimes have to work on the car yourself. Do you know how to?
I enjoy it. In Finland, I’ve always repaired my own cars. I tweak my bikes too. There’s nothing wrong with getting your fingers dirty.
Did you foster the ‘Iceman’ image to survive in F1?
No. ‘Iceman’ goes back a long way. In F1, politics gets in the way of the exciting side of things. The atmosphere in rallying is much nicer and there’s a lot less politics involved. It’s much more about how the driver performs.
You’re a celebrity, especially in Finland. Now that you’re moving over into Finland’s national sport – rallying – you probably won’t dare to go out on the streets of Helsinki at all.
I don’t care about that. It can’t be any worse than it already is. I’ve learned to deal with it.
You did military service. What did you find most difficult about it?
The first couple of months were stressful. We were constantly roared at. By the end we were bored and messed around. Apart from military films where everyone’s roaring, getting up early was the worst.
What’s your favourite toy during the off-season?
A snowmobile. It’s huge fun tearing around Lapland with friends on one. But Motocross comes close.
What makes a good road car?
What’s the last sport you’ve tried?
I started climbing last year on the recommendation of my fitness trainer, and it’s fun.
Who’s going to win ice hockey’s Stanley Cup?
The San Jose Sharks.
Who’s going to win snowboarding Olympic gold in the half-pipe?
I’ll keep my fingers crossed for the Finns, but it’ll probably be hard to beat Shaun White.
Who’s going to be the next World Rally Champion?
Loeb or Hirvonen. Loeb.
Hard to say. I don’t know what Ferrari’s plans are. Mercedes will probably have a good car, so will McLaren. Red Bull Racing probably will too. So I’m going to have to award the title based on who I like: Sebastian Vettel. He’s so down-to-earth.
Do you have much contact with him?
I know Heikki Kovalainen [a fellow Finn] better. As a rule, I don’t have that much contact with people from F1. Sometimes I play badminton with Vettel. He’s moving to my part of Switzerland so we’ll probably see more of each other.
How interested will you be in F1 if you’re not in an F1 car yourself?
I’ll watch a race on TV every now and then. Maybe I’ll go to the Monaco Grand Prix. I could get an F1 drive again any time, but lots of bad things are happening in F1. Manufacturers are pulling out. Let’s have the same conversation in a year’s time. Let’s look way into the future.
What would a WRC title mean to you?
More than my F1 World Championship title. I’m just starting out and I can sense what a long journey it would be to get to that point. No one’s done it before. That’s another thing that makes it interesting.