Lotus will bring the very best out of Kimi Raikkonen, reckon team bosses Eric Boullier and Gerard Lopez, who believe the 2007 world champion is a much more dedicated team player than his past reputation suggested.
Raikkonen has impressed Lotus since joining the team for his Formula 1 comeback after two years in rallying, and was quickest on the first day of winter testing at Jerez last week. Lopez said Lotus had found Raikkonen to be a totally different character to how he was presented during his last F1 stint. “For most people it’s probably one of the big mysteries, because you hear the hearsay and so forth, but we feel very good with him and he clearly feels at home,” Lopez told AUTOSPORT. “He smiles a lot when he’s with us! But most importantly that says he feels more like part of the family.” Lopez added: “I think Kimi has a public image that honestly from what we’ve seen does not translate into how he really is. He’s a very hard worker, very good at providing feedback, and has a good team spirit. “Once we talked to him, once we understood why he was coming back, we really felt comfortable. If you look at what happened [at the test], nobody can say that he’s not on the pace.”
Boullier reckons the way Lotus works is proving ideal for Raikkonen. “We tried to handle his personality and make sure that we don’t bother him too much with too many intrusions, and he’s a real racer,” said Boullier. “This team is full of proper racing people and he has fitted very well because we speak the same language. “We are flexible, but our system is very racing-orientated, and that suits him very well.”
He may be two years older and wearing different overalls as he strides through the Jerez paddock, but it almost feels as if Kimi Raikkonen has never been away from the Formula One fold. And after impressing during the opening day of pre-season testing, Raikkonen appears to be in fine form in the Lotus too. Team principal Eric Boullier discusses how the Finn is settling in…
Q: Back in November Raikkonen didn’t seem to be on your agenda but then not long after you made an announcement. When did you first start talking to him about joining the team?
Eric Boullier: Well, the first talks started just after Abu Dhabi and we closed the deal in less than ten days. It all went very quickly! Just before that we were evaluating internally which driver we wanted to recruit and we only wanted to share those discussions within the team. Then we contacted Kimi – and it was done! Obviously his negotiations with Williams were going nowhere but he wanted to be back in Formula One. So it was the right time and the right situation. Clearly money was not the point. He liked the package that we offered and that was it.
Q: Did it help that he would be driving for a team with such an iconic name?
EB: I am not so sure that this played any role in his reasoning, but then of course it is better to drive for an iconic name than a ‘no-name’. I think that the key motivation for him was the feedback that he got from the team. We are not a marketing machine – we are a race team! I am not blaming anybody in the pit lane, but we are more a racing family than a machine. And he started to feel very comfortable with our crew after he realised that we are racing people!
Q: You said that the absence of Robert Kubica after his accident was the biggest blow to the team last season. Will Raikkonen help fill the void?
EB: Right away – yes! Because in terms of team morale and motivation – and even team guidance – he is there, because he is a guy that knows what he wants. I promise you he is committed and, as I just said, he knows what he wants.
Q: What is it that you expect from the ‘Iceman’? His reputation precedes him but after two years away will he struggle?
EB: I know already that he is not struggling.
Q: Is that after his running on the opening day of this week’s test?
EB: Yes – I have seen how he has been driving. Without even looking at the times, you can see from the line that he was cruising around the track on and how he uses the car. I am sure that he will need some time to find the last tweaks to be 100 per cent sure, but believe me, he is there!
Q: How much time will it take until he is back at the performance level of a race winner?
EB: He will be a potential race winner if we give him an adequate car. Obviously this is the package that he needs to have. My guess is that at the beginning of the European ‘season’ he will be ready.
Q: You needed a big name to join the team in its first season as Lotus and Raikkonen needed a drive as he wanted to return to Formula One racing. The pressure is on for both sides, which could prove explosive. Are you ready for it?
EB: Do you know any world championship contender – either team or driver – that was not explosive? And I don’t really see it as explosive in any way. Sure, for a team named Lotus it is a benefit having a big name. It’s a perfect match because we were looking for somebody with his background, experience, charisma and speed, but he also was looking for a team to join to make a good return into Formula One. And the match is working. Obviously we all don’t know right now how it will develop, but from what we have experienced over the last weeks we can be positive. Nothing can be worse than what we have experienced in the past. Let’s take it easy.
Q: The team’s 2011 season started with an absent star driver, a replacement who struggled and a driver in just his second season. The team’s 2012 season starts with a driver who hasn’t been in the sport for two years and a virtual rookie in Romain Grosjean. What did you learn last year that could help this year?
EB: What a tricky question! You never know how people will develop. Sometimes you believe it will be a perfect fit – and it is not – and sometimes the unexpected comes your way and it becomes the missing link which in turn produces a sharp step forward. In the end it all boils down to the human combinations. The fit between you and other people. And then comes the performance of the car, the team’s performance and everything else that makes a Formula One team tick. Robert’s accident was completely unexpected and from there we had to react. I have to say I believe that we were still doing well under those circumstances. But strategy-wise, I am happy that Genii has kept their faith in the team and they are going with us down another path, as I now believe that this is the path that we always wanted to take.
Q: Romain Grosjean’s first experience of Formula One racing was tough. How can you help?
EB: In 2009 he replaced a driver without any testing at all to take over a car that was not easy to drive for a team that was completely focused on Fernando Alonso. He was not ready and he was not given a real chance. When he came to see me 15 months ago to discuss his future I told him that he had to recover first as a driver. He had lost confidence and had to rebuild, so I sent him racing in many different categories to get his feet on the ground again and to improve his reputation in Enstone again. He’d won every category that he had ever raced in and then his career spiralled when he got his Formula One chance. In 2011, as well as winning the GP2 title, he was our reserve driver which was a role that didn’t come with any pressure but allowed him to gain back the trust from the engineers in our factory. And little by little he did it and the practice session he took part in last season helped him regain that respect. It will not be easy for him alongside Kimi, who is fast and a strong character, but Romain has to be ready. This is not a nursery and if you want to survive and be successful you have to fight. Kimi is not the political person that Fernando was, but Kimi is like a rock – an icy rock – so don’t expect any warmth!
Q: Force India almost caught you in the constructors’ standings. This year they are aiming to take fifth place from you…
EB: There are too many maybes and ifs! Yes, they were almost catching us at the end. We know why and have learnt from that. So let the past be the past. Of course we are focusing on breaking into the top four now – like we should have done last year if it had been the year that we had planned. Sure the forward exhausts were brave – possibly too brave – but that was all in 2011.
Q: Raikkonen is spending the first two days of this test in the car. What has his feedback been like so far?
EB: Kimi is very confident and he is very happy with the car, its balance and handling. We are heading into a long test programme that hopefully will bring some satisfaction in Melbourne for all of us. The chemistry is already working well.