It took a long time but Kimi Raikkonen has finally won the world championship title that he so clearly deserves. And, of course, it came at the expense of McLaren after his own two near misses with the British team in 2003 and ’05.
This was an extraordinary season for the Finn that began with an oh-so-easy victory in Australia that proved to be a false dawn. It was followed by a series of frustrating races that even led some to speculate his future with the team was in doubt. Yet, once everything clicked, Raikkonen was more often than not the man to beat, a position that was obscured by the headline-grabbing battle between Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso.
He had a lot of catching up to do. It’s hard to believe now that he was as much as 17 points behind Hamilton at the end of the Japanese Grand Prix, with only 20 up for grabs over the final two races. And a few laps into that race, when he languished at the back after a disastrous strategy gamble by the team, he was staring at a title-losing 23-point deficit.
It’s easy to overlook how much is involved when a frontrunning driver changes teams. Raikkonen had, after all, spent five full seasons at McLaren, and was used to the Woking team’s systems and way of doing things. Moving over from Renault, the team he’d grown up with, Alonso faced similar challenges.
But Raikkonen undoubtedly had the more difficult job, for he was also filling the shoes of Michael Schumacher. In addition, the departure of Ross Brawn meant he was joining a team that was under serious pressure to maintain its equilibrium, and had also lost the advantages conferred by its special relationship with Bridgestone.
Raikkonen was also up against a team-mate who not only had a year’s head start, but enjoyed a special relationship with the team boss. It could all have gone horribly wrong – like it did for Alonso – and the fact it didn’t was a reflection of Raikkonen’s ability to focus on what really matters.
Alonso had a slight advantage over Raikkonen in that he had a day in a McLaren in December, which accelerated the getting-to-know-each-other process. Kimi had to wait until January until he was free to drive a red car for the first time.
There was a limited amount of testing before Melbourne, and a great deal to learn. And perhaps trickiest of all was the transition from Michelin to Bridgestone, something that caught out many drivers.
“The Bridgestones were like playing on a different field,” says David Robertson, who co-managed Raikkonen with son Steve. “Kimi and Alonso struggled. Lewis [Hamilton] when he was on the Michelins [in his early McLaren testing] struggled like hell – he couldn’t do anything. He went to the Bridgestones, and it was ‘this is it!’, because that’s the playing field he was used to being on. That’s what we all believe, that’s what Kimi believed.”
Raikkonen left the winter-headline grabbing to others, but when he got to Australia things could hardly have gone any better in terms of making his mark with both the team and the tifosi: pole position, victory and fastest lap. Michael who? But he was flattered by circumstances, not least the fact team-mate Felipe Massa had a problem in qualifying and had to fight through the field.
Things got tougher in Malaysia, where the car’s performance was compromised, but he took third and some useful points. Massa’s early excursion suggested that Raikkonen had already established himself as de facto team leader.
“The Michelins were quite a bit different when you approached the corner and, in order to avoid understeer, you had to use the tyres in quite an aggressive way. With Bridgestone it’s completely the opposite so, if you want to avoid the understeer, you need to be more gentle on turn-in” Luca Baldisserri
That perception changed abruptly in Bahrain, where Massa scored an impressive win, and Raikkonen was some way behind in third. “Australia just stunned us all, I think,” says his Aussie engineer Chris Dyer. “It was just such an easy weekend. And really you kind of know that that’s not going to last. We came back down to earth with a bit of a thud in Malaysia, especially with Kimi struggling there with the engine, so he was pretty much fighting with one hand tied behind his back. And then Bahrain wasn’t glorious.”
That weekend at the Sakhir circuit had put a negative focus on Raikkonen, and it was evident that all was not well.
“The problems started more in qualifying, to be honest,” says Ferrari engineering chief Luca Baldisserri, “because he was not able to put the lap time together. Even in Brazil he was still struggling a little bit. Then he had problems to understand all our systems, to understand the tyres. At that stage we were not fantastic in terms of starts, and we improved quite a lot.
“The Michelins were quite a bit different when you approached the corner and, in order to avoid understeer, you had to use the tyres in quite an aggressive way. With Bridgestone it’s completely the opposite so, if you want to avoid the understeer, you need to be more gentle on turn-in. And that is what he learned. We did some tuning of the set-up, plus he adjusted his style.”
That process was still being explored in Spain, the first of a run of four races during which Raikkonen was to earn just 10 points. At Barcelona he suffered a failure after just nine laps, the first retirement among any of the top runners to date.
Another Massa win confirmed that the Brazilian was on the ascendancy. “That was a pretty bad run,” says Dyer. “Spain was an electrical problem – we would have been second or third. We probably wouldn’t have beaten Felipe there, but I’m pretty sure it was an easy third, with a probable second.”
Having been frustrated by the unreliability at McLaren, Raikkonen was hardly impressed. Keen to get home to Switzerland to watch the ice hockey world championship final on TV, he bailed out of the circuit early. The team had let him go of course, but it created the wrong impression at a bad time. Schumacher would never have done that, we observed. Indeed, that very day Schuey left the paddock three hours after the race – and he hadn’t even been driving.
The former world champion was a regular presence at that stage of the season, and there’s little doubt that Raikkonen was probably as confused as everyone else about his predecessor’s exact role. The Finn clearly bristled at naive questions about how much Michael was helping him. After all, he didn’t need any fatherly advice from Mika Hakkinen when he started at McLaren and, at that stage, he had just one year’s F1 experience behind him.
Early in Q2 in Monaco, Raikkonen made his most costly mistake of the season, clipping the Swimming Pool barrier with the front right after the back had stepped out on him. A trackrod was broken and a wishbone cracked, and he demonstrated his bravery to the team by insisting he still wanted to go out, and would take responsibility. He was overruled, and forced to start 16th. In a race of low attrition, he made laboured progressed up to eighth.
“That was the mistake he made,” says Robertson. “Until that point he was right there. I’d say Monaco was the turning point, despite the mistake. He felt he’d conquered it.”
Dyer adds: “Monaco was a strange weekend, with an unforced error. He’s been looking pretty good up to then, really comfortable all weekend, really happy with the car. A small mistake, and you pay the price.
“Obviously he was disappointed. We’re all disappointed when we make mistakes. We’re disappointed when the car breaks down on him, we’re disappointed when we don’t give him quite the right set-up, and he’s disappointed when he doesn’t do the job.”
The pace of the McLarens was such that Raikkonen would probably have been racing for third in Monaco and there was a similar performance deficit in Canada. This time Raikkonen edged out Massa in qualifying, but he had another poor start, and made life difficult for himself by damaging his front wing on the Brazilian’s rear tyre. Later he picked up some of Robert Kubica’s crash debris, and he was also delayed by having to wait behind his team-mate at the first stops under the safety car. He eventually finished fifth, after what was outwardly another unconvincing performance. The team felt differently.
“To be honest we weren’t that bad in Canada,” says Dyer. “We had a dreadful start, and then we got screwed like everybody else by the safety car, so it was never going to be glorious. But the signs through the race were that things weren’t as bad as they looked.”
Indianapolis a week later was to be even better. It didn’t look too promising when Raikkonen made yet another bad start and got stuck behind Nick Heidfeld and Heikki Kovalainen but, in the late stages, he showed impressive speed and set the fastest lap as he salvaged fourth, behind Massa.
“Canada and Indy weren’t good results,” admits Dyer. “But we would see signs we were making progress.”
“The really great thing about Kimi is he suffers for about one hour, and then it’s all behind him. It’s simple philosophy – and I couldn’t do it – which is to say, ‘That’s behind me now, I can’t do anything about it. Let’s go forward'” David Robertson
Steve Robertson agrees the US race was significant: “In all honesty, it really clicked at the race at Indianapolis. I think he found his feet there in terms of a car he really enjoyed, and was more to his liking. And from then on I don’t think anyone can question the fact that Kimi has been the strongest driver. You can’t argue with that.”
Nevertheless, after Indy, Raikkonen was 26 points behind Hamilton, and at that stage there seemed to be little hope of stopping the McLaren steamroller. But then things began to swing in his favour. At Magny-Cours he qualified only third, but he got ahead of Hamilton at the start and then made the most of the pit strategy to leapfrog poleman Massa. It was a critical race in many ways, not least because it featured him getting the upper hand on his frustrated team-mate.
“We struggled a little bit earlier in the year with the starts,” says Dyer. “And, since Magny-Cours, Kimi’s starts have been spot-on. I don’t think he’s lost a place since then, and more often than not he’s gained places. The guys have done a fantastic job with the rest of what’s required for the start.”
Another win seven days later at Silverstone suggested that Raikkonen might be gaining enough momentum for a title challenge, but Nurburgring was to change that. Significantly, he took his first pole since Melbourne, but then the first-lap rain created a lottery. Raikkonen made his life difficult by understeering out of the pit entry back onto the track, and had to run an extra lap on dry tyres.
Once things calmed down, he was destined for a useful helping of points when he suffered a hydraulic glitch, at the very same track where retirements had cost him two titles at McLaren. It was his second failure of the season – the only other DNF to that point among the top four was Massa’s self-inflicted black flag at Montreal.
“It was really gutting for me,” Dyer admits. “I’d seen him lose two championships before due to reliability, and it’s always been one of our strong points. I was not very happy to think that maybe he was going to lose another one here to reliability.”
Robertson says the man himself was unfazed: “The really great thing about Kimi is he suffers for about one hour, and then it’s all behind him. It’s simple philosophy – and I couldn’t do it – which is to say, ‘That’s behind me now, I can’t do anything about it. Let’s go forward’.”
The next three races featured some efficient points-gathering: an unexpectedly close second to Hamilton in Hungary, another second, to Massa, in Istanbul and a third at Monza on a day when McLaren humbled Ferrari at home.
Baldisserri thinks Raikkonen would have beaten Hamilton in Hungary had he not lost a crucial few seconds when he ran off the road: “He lost two seconds behind Hamilton that didn’t allow us to change the strategy in the pitstop, which I think we could have done differently.”
Then came Spa, where Raikkonen had won the previous two races for McLaren. He took his third (and final) pole of the season and put in a masterful performance that showed beyond all doubt he was on top of his game.
A season is fought over 17 races, of course, but arguably it was Fuji that ultimately won Raikkonen the title. After three laps, it looked like he was well out of the game after the team’s ill-advised (and, as it turned out, illegal) decision to start on intermediate tyres.
“We took the decision that we took,” says Baldisserri. “Until the mathematics put you out of the game, our team spirit is to try, and it was the right approach.”
Helped by the safety car, but mostly by a largely unsung virtuoso performance that humbled his struggling team-mate, Raikkonen fought back to third place. He was still in the title picture, but… 17 points in two races?
The impossible dream became a little more likely in China, where he hustled his way past the struggling Hamilton – after keeping his tyres in better shape – and logged a superb wet/dry win. And then came Brazil, where there was only one target: a win, with Massa riding shotgun. Incredibly, all the cards fell into place, and Massa played his supporting role. With six wins to the four of each of the McLaren drivers, no one can deny Raikkonen’s claim to the title.
“He did everything right when everybody else was spouting off and saying this or that. He just kept his head down, got on and delivered. That’s why Ferrari got him, and I know they’re thrilled that he managed to do it” David Robertson
“He’s put in some fantastic drives this year,” smiles Dyer. “He hasn’t let us down, but we’ve let him down a few times. He’s gone from strength to strength, the car’s been good, and he hasn’t really made any errors in the last two thirds of the season. He’s cool and he’s fast and he just gets on and does the job.”
Robertson adds: “He really is a giant – the right man has won this. He did everything right when everybody else was spouting off and saying this or that. He just kept his head down, got on and delivered. That’s why Ferrari got him, and I know they’re thrilled that he managed to do it.”
Baldisserri offers a fascinating footnote to the season: “Michael had input into the team; he was a lot closer to the team. Kimi has a completely different approach, and he tends to accept what we give to him. It’s a lot more complicated for us to understand what he needs. With Michael it was a bit easier. And Kimi drove a very good car this year. Michael showed that even with a car that was not so competitive, he could win. With Kimi, I don’t know yet.”
Wt happened next?
While Raikkonen’s talents have never been questioned, it is remarkable to note since his F1 title-clinching Brazilian GP triumph in 2007, he has gone on to claim a further six grand prix victories, the same total he achieved across his title-winning year.
Despite this, and with the exception of his two years out of F1 in 2010 and 2011, the Finn has never been far away from the sharp end of the F1 grid until his second departure from Ferrari in 2018 to move back to the Sauber-run Alfa Romeo squad.
Raikkonen continues to make F1 history through his longevity. After surpassing Rubens Barrichello’s record tally at the 2020 Eifel GP, the Finn made his 341st start in last week’s washout Belgian GP and assuming the current TBC 21 November date is filled will end his career on 351 race starts.
While Raikkonen may have never hit the heights of 2007 since, his record remains outstanding in F1 to cement his place as an all-time great.
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Kimi Raikkonen, Alfa Romeo Racing C41
Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images