2014 – the team's perspective
In between maximizing this year's car and working on next year's, there is constant speculation regarding the guy who has become the Lotus team's talisman and de facto team leader.
Lotus must do everything it can to retain Raikkonen. With the Finn attracting attention from serious teams, notably Red Bull, he is not short of options to jump ship. Boullier describes him as “the key” and with good reason. No magic bullet, there are nonetheless precious few drivers capable of a world championship and Raikkonen is one of only five on the grid to have won it. The ace in his hand is his regular superb race performance. While a Vettel or a Lewis Hamilton would surely do better on Saturdays in a Lotus, there's not a great deal of room for improvement on Kimi's Sunday displays.
Raikkonen's reputation as a super-fast, visceral talent is at best out-of-date and at worst misleading. He is a far more rounded and calculating driver, with his race performances rivaling Alonso for their relentlessness. Raikkonen has a 100 percent finishing record in his 30-race comeback, failing to score only once thanks to his tires falling off a cliff in China last year. That makes him the bedrock of Lotus's present and, it will hope, future successes.
There are weaknesses. He does not have the intense work ethic of a Vettel or Alonso, as those who have worked with him both at his current and former teams will attest. Lotus has made allowances to get the best out of Raikkonen, who made his return to F1 from rallying very much on his own terms. While he probably leaves that final fraction-of-a-percent on the table that his multiple world champion rivals would devour through sheer force of will, he is unquestionably stronger than a second-tier driver such as a Mark Webber.
The prevailing feeling in the paddock is that, with a Vettel or an Alonso in the car over the past 18 months, Lotus would probably have picked up another couple of race wins, but there is no doubt that it is the car's performance that is preventing a title shot, not any shortcoming on Raikkonen's part.
His presence in the team is also a declaration of intent for a team constantly engulfed in speculation about its long-term health. Raikkonen is central to delivering on Lotus's stated ambition.
“I would prefer to be seen as a top team in the long-term rather than a championship-winner just once,” says Boullier. “You can be lucky and win that championship once but we are capable of fighting for top positions every year. That is how we should be perceived and perform.”
If Raikkonen does go, with no chance of luring one of the other top guns, Lotus would have to opt for a driver unproven at the sharp end. The obvious choice is the outstanding Nico Hulkenberg. Largely anonymous for Sauber this season, the German is very fast, experienced enough to cut it at the front and a strong enough driving force to provide the cutting edge Lotus needs.
As for Grosjean, the jury remains out. While his mishaps have frustrated Lotus, he is fast, seriously fast when things are going well for him. Not only is he a driver who, if he fulfils his potential, would represent the “sporting jackpot” for the team (Boullier's words) but his speed keeps Raikkonen sharp. At both Lotus and the Finn's previous teams, there are those who feel he benefits from the motivational shove of a fast driver on the other side of the garage and there is no question Raikkonen respects Grosjean's pace. With or without Raikkonen, Grosjean has a decent shot of staying on at Lotus, provided he maintains his current performance level.
But drivers are only part of the equation. The departure of highly rated technical director James Allison earlier this year was a setback for 2014, although the promotion of Nick Chester to take his place ensured the changeover was seamless. Whoever is in the car, whether Lotus can kick on next year will depend on its own strength, and the power and reliability of the new Renault engine it's likely to be mated to.
Yet whatever the potential of the car, the loss of Raikkonen could only be a negative.