What has brought Kimi Raikkonen back to Formula 1? He says that after a couple of years in rallying he realized he missed the thrill of wheel-to-wheel racing. But it's unlikely to be as simple as that. After all, here's a guy who turned his back on the sport at the end of 2009 having failed to close a McLaren deal for '10 that would have allowed him to continue to win races.
Since then, his residual value as the '07 World Champion has faded to the point where it could no longer sustain his World Rally Championship adventure – he had to sink a substantial sum of his own money into his WRC campaign. So was money one of the driving forces for his return, even though his Lotus retainer of a few million is paltry compared to the days when he was earning a reputed $30m? That, too, seems unlikely, since initially he was talking to Williams, a team that could neither offer him the pay packet nor the machinery he was once accustomed to. And, once those discussions fell apart, it took just a couple weeks for him to sign with Lotus.
Of course, regardless of the initial motives for a return to F1, there is then the question of whether his desire will wane once the novelty of being back in Formula 1 has worn off. But the Finn who, at 32, still has plenty of life left in him as an open-wheel racer, insists that 1) he doesn't need to be in F1 for the cash and 2) there should never have been question marks over his motivation in the past, either.
“You do want a certain amount of money, but I don't need to do it for that,” he says. “The racing is the main thing. And there has always been talk about my motivation, but the people who write it don't even know me. The problem is not motivation when a car is bad – you just drive your best and don't get good results. It's not always the driver's fault; it's just easier to blame the guy who's in the car. I feel I drove one of my best years in 2009 with Ferrari so I was very happy with that.I never had any issues with motivation.”
At Lotus, it's been a case of “so far, so good,” as Raikkonen was immediately quick when strapped into a 2010-specification Renault at Valencia in January and in the new Lotus E20 in Barcelona in February, then overcame a difficult qualifying session to score points on his return to the sport in Australia last weekend.
Just as important, he impressed the team with his method. But then Lotus has taken a pragmatic approach to its new No. 1 driver. With only 12 days of preseason testing to divide up between Kimi and his teammate, fellow-F1 returnee Romain Grosjean, plus three days at Mugello in May, there is little test work to be done. Lotus recognizes – as McLaren did and Ferrari didn't – that to get the best out of Raikkonen, you need to give him space. Outside of grand prix weekends and tests, his time will largely be his own.
“I like to race and that's why I came to F1,” he says. “All the rest is something that is part of F1 but it's not the main thing. There is not much testing now, but when you do many days in a row at some places it's not always the most fun thing. It was nice to do different things outside F1 over the past two years. It means I can take the b.s. more again!”
If keeping Raikkonen insulated from the peripherals as much as possible is what it takes to harness his ability, then that is what Lotus will do. So far, those in the team have been impressed with his attitude and have seen no signs of a driver lacking in spirit or focus. Most impressive about his testing exploits was not his outright speed – this is, after all, someone who was very fast when he first stepped into an F1 car fresh out of racing in Formula Renault. What really caught the eye was his consistency and the ability to turn the right lap times for the relevant fuel load.
Inevitably, though, the sterner tests are to come, and currently the Raikkonen/Lotus relationship is in the honeymoon phase. The car looked good in initial tests, but is unlikely to be a championship contender. Points, a few podiums, and just maybe a win are the best Raikkonen can hope for. But, Raikkonen argues, his Ferrari campaign in 2009 proved that he has the fighting spirit to get results even when the car isn't good enough, race to race.
“The last Ferrari I drove wasn't always at the front and I had some pretty good races,” he says. “I won't give up if I'm, say, eighth. As long as I know that I am giving 100 percent, I am happy with my driving. If it's not enough to win, it doesn't matter. Of course, you want to win the championship, but it doesn't really change my life. It's more that it changes the way people look at you or think about you. I'm happy just to achieve something. If I can win more races in the future, that's a good thing, but it's not something in my head that I have to do. If it doesn't happen, it doesn't happen.”
Whatever happens, the Finn's first objective will be to prove that the searing speed and capacity for incredible performances can still be accessed, and on a consistent basis. If he can do that, it will be good news for his team, even if the car isn't quite up to winning races. And it could be a win-win situation for Raikkonen. Even if Lotus does not give him good enough machinery to keep him next year (and sources indicate that his 2013 contract is dependent on him finishing in the top eight of the drivers' championship), if he excels in a mediocre car then any number of teams would be interested in his services.
Comebacks rarely work in F1, but Raikkonen is young enough and good enough to make a success of this. Few doubt that he still has wins in him and a second championship is far from impossible. He may not acknowledge any flaws in his previous approach, but some close to him say he understands exactly why the question marks over his focus and attitude came up last time around and has adjusted the way he works accordingly.
If that's the case, then everyone – Raikkonen, Lotus and Formula 1 – will benefit.
• For the full version of this feature article, plus much more, you'll need the April 2012 issue of RACER magazine, which is NOT available on newsstands.. CLICK HERE to subscribe.