2014 – Raikkonen's options
The famously inscrutable Raikkonen is not an easy man to read. But one thing is abundantly clear; despite the interest from the best team in Formula 1, he wants to stay at Lotus. As he puts it in one of his few telling statements, it is about the overall package and “whatever feels right for me.”
By that, he is referring to two things. Raikkonen loves the ambiance at Lotus and the freedom he is given by a team that makes a virtue of his monosyllabic public persona. He enjoys more freedom than any of the other top-ranked drivers in F1 and everything is done to accommodate him. Kimi is driven by enjoying himself; he has made enough money and tasted enough success to not wish to trade in an environment he revels in for one where he could feel uncomfortable but is more likely to be able to chase another world title.
Asked if he is enjoying his racing, he replies: “I wouldn't be here if not. I would have walked away already. When the day comes that I don't feel it's something I want, I will walk away. If it comes in the middle of the year, I will walk away. I have no passion to be here if I don't feel it's the right thing.”
So far, so good for Lotus. The team wants him, he wants to stay, so sign the contract, surely? Not that simple. There's a huge caveat. Raikkonen has made it abundantly clear to the team that his first choice is to stay, but only if he is convinced it has the resources to kick on. While he does not need a second title to the exclusion of all else, he would not be satisfied feeding on scraps. A competitive car is still clearly part of what makes up the “right thing” by his definition, and he's achieved too much in F1 to simply make up the numbers.
Lotus is probably the fifth-biggest team in F1 in terms of resources and budget. So its current fourth in the championship is, by definition, overachieving. Raikkonen needs to know it can at the very least stay there if he is to re-commit. After all, amid the uncertainty of how the new engines will affect the competitive order next year, Red Bull is as safe a bet as there is.
There are reasons to question Lotus. There have been question marks hanging over its long-term financial position, given its failure to secure a hoped-for major sponsorship deal. Technical director Allison also quit the team, partly motivated by these concerns, and did so even before concluding his move to Ferrari. On the flip-side of the coin, the team has invested in areas such as a new simulator and a gearbox dyno over the past few years, not to mention shunning pay drivers, so it would be wrong to say there is no investment at Lotus.
Also, of the figures you may have read as being team's debt, the vast majority is actually shareholder debt. But with the imminent buy-in by the Infinity Racing consortium, which is in the process of acquiring a 35 percent stake in the squad from owners Genii Capital, the chances of Raikkonen staying have increased.
And so, astonishing to some, Raikkonen is willing to turn down Red Bull Racing. Lotus is “his” team, compatible with his way of working. And after his difficult times at Ferrari and McLaren, environment is paramount. He is not flustered by the prospect of going up against Vettel in the same team, but would find Red Bull less willing to accommodate his peculiarities. After all, if RBR allows Raikkonen fewer corporate days of obligation, you can be sure Vettel will push for the same thing.
Performance-wise, it would be tough for Raikkonen to match Vettel, whose qualities are still (absurdly) undervalued after three world championships in a car that was certainly the strongest in the field but not by as much as he has made it look at times. Even in these days of tire management, which will be made even more complex with the energy management demands of next year's power units and the 100kg fuel limit, qualifying remains the foundation stone for race performance and Raikkonen probably no longer has that last 0.1-0.15sec per lap that Vettel can extract.
While that will not make him number two at Red Bull, a missing tenth-and-a-half could leave him very much as number-one-and-a-half. So there is no guarantee of a second championship even if he does jump ship. While he will be close enough to be a contender, Vettel would likely have the edge, all things being equal. But a Lotus that fulfills its potential could give Kimi exactly that “all things being equal” scenario, as it did in the mid-1990s under the Benetton banner for Michael Schumacher and the mid-2000s as Renault for Fernando Alonso.
Lotus does not need to be a sure thing to keep Raikkonen. It need only be a decent bet to convince him to sign on the dotted line. And over the next month or so, we will find out just how much potential Raikkonen believes Lotus really has.