Kimi Raikkonen has not won a grand prix since the season opener in Australia. Yet almost by stealth, he headed into the August break as Sebastian Vettel's closest championship challenger. Closest is a relative term and he is a win-and-a-half behind (38 points), so not quite within striking distance. But thanks to remarkable consistency, with his sole triumph backed up by five second places, Raikkonen has to be taken seriously as a title contender.
The question is whether Lotus can add outright speed to its armory. Consistency is a potent weapon, as is being gentler on tires than your rivals, but those qualities alone are not enough.
Only at Silverstone, where Vettel retired while leading and Raikkonen was fifth, has finishing ability alone been enough to close the gap. On the other four occasions the Finn has taken points out of the triple world champion, three of those have come thanks to making fewer pit stops. This is exactly what happened in the last race at the Hungaroring, where Raikkonen held off the quicker Vettel for the runner-up spot behind Lewis Hamilton.
The key to closing that gap regularly is improving qualifying. Raikkonen has made the top 10 qualifying shootout in every race, but averages only sixth fastest. The single-lap pace of the car is around 0.6sec from pole in 2013, although in Hungary, Raikkonen's team-mate, Romain Grosjean, was only a couple of tenths off. Good, but not great.
Arguably, with a better grid position Raikkonen might have won both Germany and Bahrain, transforming the championship picture. Partly, this is down to Raikkonen himself, for – when on-song – Grosjean appears to have stronger qualifying pace and has beaten him on Saturday in two out of the last three races. Effective as Raikkonen is in executing a race to perfection, the work he has to do making up places can prove costly.
The next two events, at Spa and Monza offer some promise. Lotus is very optimistic about Belgium although Italy remains an unknown, but neither is a traditional Red Bull stronghold, so there is an opportunity for Raikkonen to make further inroads. At Spa, the Lotus E21's much-vaunted passive drag reduction system, which redirects airflow once the car hits a certain speed to stall the rear wing, could give the car the extra few tenths it needs to be stronger in qualifying.
“At Spa, we should be good,” says Lotus team principal Eric Boullier. “Monza is a low-downforce package, so it's a bit different. Maybe we could have a good race there because the less downforce you have, the more harsh with the tires you are. So we should still get the benefits from our car design there.”
On the downside, the Lotus-Renault E21 is reaching the end of its development curve. There are some parts in the pipeline, but as trackside operations director Alan Permane points out, now is the time to focus on the new regs.
“We have got some more stuff coming,” he says. “We have some small upgrades for Spa, including a reasonable front wing upgrade. And we have our rear-wing [stalling] device that we'll be looking at. I don't think there will be a great deal more now because we are focused on moving on to 2014 and I think everyone will do that.
“But we can be confident we've got a quick car for the rest of the season. We've clearly got the legs of Ferrari, certainly in the race and in qualifying we were quicker.”
Realistically, Raikkonen needs some favors from Red Bull to take the title. Even holding second might prove tricky given that Mercedes is emerging as an ever-stronger force.