OPINION: The end for an enigma

OPINION: The end for an enigma

He’s 42 next month, and if you’d asked Kimi Raikkonen a decade ago if he’d be racing in Formula 1 at that stage, he’d have probably just laughed.

Yes, a laugh from Kimi. He does do it sometimes.

And he’d have probably laughed because he wasn’t even racing in F1 a decade ago. In 2011 he was in the midst of the second year of his break from the sport – something he says now was key to his longevity — and while he came back refreshed in 2012, the fact that the first part of his career was only nine seasons long meant you’d have been brave to predict he’d complete 10 more.

But one of the most notable things about Raikkonen is how he has changed.

In the first part of his career, he was an outrageous talent possessing the sort of raw pace and ability that other drivers were clearly jealous of. He delivered thrilling performances — none more so than his win at Suzuka in 2005 – but with an attitude that seemed to make it look like he wasn’t always having to try very hard. That wasn’t the case of course, but at McLaren and Ferrari in those days, you were already far more than a driver, and a lot was expected outside of the car as well as in it.

The way he snatched the 2007 title was a huge surprise given where he was with two races remaining — third in the standings, 17 points behind Lewis Hamilton with a maximum of 20 available — but it was also long overdue.

At McLaren, it had almost been expected he would win a title. The heir apparent to Mika Hakkinen, it was all set up for him, but lack of reliability meant it never quite happened. At Ferrari it was seen as a certainty, but while championship success did come in his first season at Maranello after he’d taken on the seemingly impossible task of replacing Michael Schumacher, that was as good as it would get.

When Raikkonen was benched – with full pay – by Ferrari at the end of 2009, it was fair to wonder whether he’d ever return. Motorsport Images

When he left at the end of 2009 — still receiving payment from Ferrari to not drive; the team having replaced him mid-contract with Fernando Alonso — you didn’t think he would be back. There was too much about the world of F1 that Raikkonen didn’t care for. But that was betting against both him and Lotus.

The perfect environment was created for Raikkonen, where he could be himself a lot more, and focus on pushing the team forward after Renault’s withdrawal as a constructor. The payment structure was a bonus because a big chunk of his earnings came from the points he scored, and as a championship outsider who eventually finished third, he did pretty well for himself.

Both the team and Raikkonen had points to prove, and Kimi found that there was still fun for him in F1, and F1 found there was a way to get the best out of Kimi. And the best out of Kimi was still so, so good.

These were no longer the nimble F1 cars of the mid-2000s that Raikkonen drove in a way that often made it look like he had found the absolute maximum, but they were still familiar. And the performances convinced Ferrari there was a value to pairing him with Alonso — the man who had replaced him four years earlier — for 2014.

That came at the start of the V6 turbo era, and Ferrari was a long way off the pace, with Alonso regularly coming out on top in the internal battle. But Raikkonen had nothing left to prove and was just racing for enjoyment. On his day, he was still extremely strong, but he didn’t need to have as many of those days. He was a world champion, earning handsomely and in a better environment than he had left at Ferrari.

He still said very little when he didn’t want to, but Raikkonen was starting to embrace the cult status that came with his monosyllabism. And at the same time, he could be extremely eloquent, understanding where his experience or his knowledge gave him an important story to tell. At least, when he felt like it.

He wasn’t without his flaws, of course. His demeanor could often come across as rude, not just with media but with fans, too. But that’s not to say he didn’t appreciate his fans, it’s just that it made sense to him that his fans would appreciate him for being himself.

The Finn’s 2018 win at COTA was the headline moment in a broadly underrated season. Photo by Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

And he seemed to be a shadow of his former self the longer his Ferrari stint went on, settling into a number two role behind Sebastian Vettel. Perhaps starting to outstay his welcome?

But that former self was still there. The win in Austin in 2018 stands out, but that whole season was much more solid than Raikkonen gets credit for. He was regularly backing Vettel up, and was much closer on points to his teammate than Valtteri Bottas was to Lewis Hamilton at Mercedes, or Daniel Ricciardo was to Max Verstappen at Red Bull.

Only Ricciardo could boast worse reliability than Raikkonen that year, too. Four times the Finn retired, and four times through no fault of his own. It always interrupted podium runs, with Raikkonen only failing to finish in the top three on five occasions, of which all were still top-six results.

Vettel, by contrast, only retired once all year — a crucial error when in the lead at Hockenheim that led to his championship challenge rapidly unraveling.

Against that backdrop, the move to Alfa Romeo was a deserved one, even at Kimi’s age. He brought a credibility to the team that helped maintain its momentum after Charles Leclerc was promoted to Ferrari. Plus, the team was helpfully within an hour of his home.

The latter part was important to Raikkonen, who had left his wild reputation behind and was enjoying life with his wife and two young children, but he was still performing. He scored 43 points in 2019, and once again he was in a happy environment.

OK, so perhaps he stayed one year too long, but that was Raikkonen’s prerogative. He’d delivered into his 40s, won a world title and taken enough race wins and pole positions to leave him 15th on both all-time lists. And you don’t get there by accident.

Raikkonen won across different eras — V10, V8 and V6 — and has over 100 podiums to his name. Even with the record for the most starts in F1 history, he was doing the unglamorous work this year, helping the team develop its new simulator due to both his proximity to the factory and his enormous experience. And that all adds to the contradiction of who Kimi is, and who he seems to be.

He is the king of one-word answers who has the potential to speak openly and honestly for hours.

He is the raucous, heavy-drinking racing driver who now takes his idyllic family to races.

He is the private, closed-off guy who can display his parenting skills to the world.

He is the laid-back Finn who has the ability to work as hard as anyone.

And whether you’re a fan of his or not, he’s a character who has been one of F1’s biggest names for 20 years. Enjoy your retirement, Kimi. You’ve earned it.

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