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Kimi's Back…



31 MAR - 03 APR 2016

Back at Ferrari, that is, from 2014. But Kimi’s back was also the subject of discussion in Singapore when the 33-year-old Finn could only qualify his Lotus 13th on the Marina Bay grid after severe back pain disrupted his practice runs. It’s the residue of an injury picked up in testing in France way back in 2001, and it flares up every now and then.

So it was little short of astonishing when he picked his way through the field to claim his first Singapore podium in third place, contributing one of the few thrills in the race when he completed a sweet round-the-outside manoeuvre on fellow-World Champion Jenson Button’s McLaren.

There was more pain for Kimi as he revealed in a Singapore press conference that the main reason for his departure from Lotus, where he has won two races since returning to F1 at the start of 2012, was that the team hasn’t paid his salary.

Exit Raïkkönen, stage left… and welcome back Kimi, said Ferrari as they teamed him with Fernando Alonso for the next two seasons. Why? Let’s take a look. ‘To finish first, first you must have a Finnish driver.’

With apologies to whoever it was that coined the well-known motor racing mantra, it’s what Ron Dennis and Stefano Domenicali might well have been thinking in recent years.

When Dennis took a punt on signing Raïkkönen for McLaren Mercedes in 2002, he already knew that drivers from Finland were a tried and trusted commodity. After all, a certain Mika Häkkinen had just retired after eight full seasons (plus three races in 1993) for the Woking team.

Those seasons yielded two Drivers’ World Championships for Mika; he helped them become Constructors’ Champions in 1998, too – and McLaren haven’t achieved that feat since he left them.

Fast forward to 2013: Ferrari recently announced that Raïkkönen is returning to Maranello next year for his second stint in a red suit. His last spell covered the years 2007 to 2009. Kimi won the Drivers’ World Championship in 2007; Ferrari were Constructors’ Champions in 2007 and 2008; they haven’t achieved that feat since he left them.

Coincidence, maybe, but it tells us an awful lot about the reasons why the top teams think Raïkkönen is a pretty good bet, even as he approaches 34 (on October 17 this year) and despite what some people say about his not being a team player.

Raïkkönen has always done things pretty much his own way, and in an increasingly plastic society where image is all, that’s a pretty cool way to be.

If you were at Albert Park in 2001 you saw him make his debut, almost inevitably scoring his first World Championship point by finishing sixth (the points were just 10-6-4-3-2-1-at that time). Fourth in Austria and Canada, fifth at Silverstone, Raïkkönen got the call from Dennis.

In Australia in 2002 there was another milestone: his first podium, third behind Michael Schumacher and Juan Pablo Montoya. It was also the occasion of Kimi’s first fastest race lap, something of which he has made a personal specialty over the years. So far he has amassed 38 of them, and with nice symmetry the most recent also came right here in Australia this year. Only two drivers by the names of Schumacher and Prost have ever scored more.

Raïkkönen’s first Grand Prix victory came in Malaysia in 2003; since that season there has been just one F1 year in which he has failed to win a race, the 2005 season when McLaren, uncharacteristically, were plagued by reliability problems.

In all Raïkkönen claimed nine race wins for McLaren but the runner-up spot in 2003, when he ran Michael Schumacher so close, and again in 2005 was the highest he could reach in the overall standings.

If he had filled big shoes when he succeeded Häkkinen at McLaren, what are we to say of his move to Ferrari to replace Michael? Kimi himself gave us the answer to that question: on debut for Ferrari in Australia in 2007 he promptly completed F1’s coveted hat-trick of pole position, race win and fastest lap! The last man to do that for Maranello had been Nigel Mansell in Rio 18 years before.

In his first Ferrari year Raïkkönen claimed the World Championship, a run of three wins in the last four races carrying him a single point clear of feuding McLaren duo Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso. Third in 2008 (teammate Massa and World Champion Hamilton were the men to beat him), Raïkkönen was sixth in 2009 but ended his Ferrari contract a year ahead of schedule as a move to Williams was mooted. When both Sir Frank and Toyota failed to persuade him of their need for his services, Kimi called it quits.

But after brief flirtations with rallying and NASCAR, by 2012 Kimi Raïkkönen was a Formula 1 driver again, this time with the reborn Lotus Renault team. The rest, as they say, is history: still super-quick, Raïkkönen was also still very much his own man: “Yes, yes, yes, leave me alone, I know what I’m doing”, he told his race engineers as they tried to coax him home in first place in Abu Dhabi. He got there all by himself.

And then in Australia this season Kimi kick-started his second year back with the 20th Grand Prix victory of his career so far. No-one outside an elite group around Raïkkönen knows how much it has cost Ferrari to bring him ‘home’, but we would do well to remember that his baseline salary at Maranello first time around was estimated at over $50m, putting him in the stratospheric company of the Beckhams, Woodses, Jordans and Mickelsons of this sporting world.

At that level it’s no longer about the money. It’s about the fire inside, and Ferrari are hoping it still burns brightly enough for Kimi Raïkkönen to win races, match new teammate Alonso and add the points the red cars need to carry them to the Constructors’ World Championship. Like their legendary founder, that’s the one they covet most of all.

That’s why Kimi’s back.

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