NBC Sports broadcaster Leigh Diffey speaks to two of Kimi Raikkonen's closest confidants in racing about the 2007 World Champion's return to Ferrari – and his prospects alongside Scuderia incumbent Fernando Alonso.
We all know how hard it is to keep a secret in motorsport, right? “So, this is just between you, me and the gatepost…” (Yeah, sure it is.)
Well, if you need to tell someone something off the record, your information is safe with Mika Salo. The Finn, who competed in 109 Formula 1 grands prix, has won at Le Mans in a Ferrari and is now an F1 broadcaster, has known about Kimi Raikkonen's move to Ferrari for months. The reason for this? My NBC Sports colleague Steve Matchett and I have a theory that this deal went down after Alonso's blow-up with the team prior to the summer break in July.
Yet as Salo recalls, “When Kimi first told me, I didn't believe him. Frankly, I thought he was BS-ing me. He does that kind of thing to me all the time; I never know whether it's true or not.”
Now, if there's someone who knows a thing or two about politics in the sport of Formula 1, it's Salo. While substituting for the injured Michael Schumacher at the 1999 German Grand Prix, Mika was headed for his first F1 victory until he got a Massa/Alonso-type radio call and was forced to succumb to team orders and give the win to Ferrari teammate Eddie Irvine (RIGHT).
Salo has also been aware for a long time the frustration Raikkonen has felt regarding finances with current employer, Lotus. Paying for his own flights and other bits and pieces made it an easy decision for the 2007 World Champion to leave, says Salo. And once he believed Raikkonen's move was for real, Salo became genuinely excited. “I thought, ‘This is great! It's amazing to have two drivers of this caliber in the one team.'
But what of the question we're all asking – how well is this “superteam” going to function?
“It will work fine,” says Salo, “and anything that has to be decided will be decided on the track. Kimi is not a politician, he's a racer – he's not interested in all that crap involved in going behind people's backs, etc.
“It will be fascinating to see who cracks first! Neither driver is a particularly good qualifier, but they are both exceptionally good racers. They will push each other to the limit and, in Formula 1, someone always cracks.”
Salo (LEFT) has seen a significant change in his friend since his return to Formula 1 for the 2012 season, observing that Kimi v2.0 is grown up and more serious. “He's definitely matured. He heads home after the majority of the races these days; he's not hanging around and partying after every grand prix. I'm not saying he's settled down entirely but he's 100 percent into racing at the moment and it's good to see.”
Personally and professionally, Salo has thoroughly enjoyed Raikkonen's return to the F1 grid, and has some definite thoughts on his compatriot's re-entry to grand prix racing following his two-year foray in rallying.
“He's not returned a better driver because F1 is just so different these days. There's more to it than just flat-out driving and raw speed. You have to be so good at managing your lap time to manage your tires and that's what Kimi is a master at. His tire management is fantastic and that's one of the reasons he was able to finish on the podium in Singapore after starting from 13th.”
One guy who shares Salo's enthusiasm for the Alonso-Raikkonen combo at Ferrari is Rhys Edwards. Rhys worked in F1 at Renault (now Lotus F1) before being headhunted by Ferrari (he laid the path for Kimi to follow!). As PR officer, he thus handled Fernando Alonso at Renault and then Raikkonen at Ferrari.
“I'm thrilled at the prospect of seeing these two together, but intrigued as to how the balance will work," he related. "In my mind, the first one to have a problem with it won't be Kimi. I'm thinking it'll be more likely Fernando.”
As someone who worked incredibly diligently to gain Raikkonen's trust and become a valued member of Kimi's inner circle, Edwards sheds an interesting light on the Finn's departure from the Scuderia at the end of 2009 to make way for Alonso.
“Everyone thinks it was bloodshed and ugly and in fact it was anything but. Kimi works in two ways: he's either in your face with absolute honesty as to how he feels or he just switches off. So with that being said, he just went on his way.”
It seems the common thread here is that Raikkonen is slowly peeling away the James Hunt-style party-boy persona and is now solely focused on winning another World Championship.
“I agree with Mika in regards to Kimi's maturity,” adds Edwards. “We are still very close and I texted him to say that I would be in Monza this year. I asked him to stick around after the race for the Alpinestars 50th anniversary party and he declined. He said he just wanted to be at home.”
Edwards' professional role these days (and has been for many years) is with Honda Racing Corporation (HRC) in MotoGP. He was two-time World Champion Casey Stoner's PR man and now handles the Super Kid, Marc Marquez.
“Kimi reminds me a lot of Casey and vice versa – they're both speed freaks, they need to get their hit. Kimi's time away was really important for him to clear his head and he came back better, in my opinion. Knowing him the way I do, there's only one reason why he's doing what he's doing – he wants to be a multi-time World Champion. That's how the guy ticks.”
The intriguing, insular “Iceman” has always been a headline maker, and it's evident this trait will continue. And according to these two gentlemen who have a rare place in Kimi's trust, his incredible ability in a racecar isn't about to leave him anytime soon, either.