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.
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.
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.