To listen to the deluded blitherings of his legion of fans (and the regional media who rely on him for a living), in very short order Kimi Matias Raikkonen is going to return to Formula 1 as well as winning the Le Mans 24 Hours and the Indy 500, all the while partaking of selected outings in NASCAR. Who knows? Perhaps he’ll also cure the common cold, return the Elgin Marbles whence they rightly belong and lead the first manned expedition to Mars. On a unicycle.
Let’s get one thing straight: to have seen Kimi Raikkonen properly on it in a fast F1 car was almost worth the price of a race admission ticket alone. The trouble is that this era began in 2001 and ended at some point during the 2008 season, after which Kimi’s form plummeted along with the global economy. And as an asset, he has spectacularly underperformed ever since.
When I say “asset” I mean that in every sense of the word. Everyone knows he doesn’t “do” PR – well, when you’re winning or performing exceptionally, sometimes you don’t have to. But if you’re not delivering the results on track, in terms of sponsor exposure, then it’s time to smile for the cameras and start delivering value elsewhere. When Red Bull cushioned Kimi’s move to the World Rally Championship after Ferrari sent him packing in 2009, they soon found that they got very little of the above.
On paper, the prospect of Kimi – the ultimate reflexive driver – in a World Rally car seemed to be a perfect match. But only if you make the same mistake as many people with a circuit racing background, which is to assume that rallying is merely a fast-twitch sport in which you drive a quick car brutally down unfamiliar roads while the bloke in the passenger seat barks vague instructions about the road ahead. Easy left? Yes, I can see that for myself, thankyouverymuch.
As Robert Kubica also learned, considerably more to his cost, rallying is a more precise and demanding sport than most circuit racers imagine. No one could ever doubt Kimi’s commitment at the wheel – when the mood takes him – but he is temperamentally unsuited to the sport of rallying. Preparation is vital: accurate pace notes are the key to speed, and my spies within the WRC report that Kimi’s chief weakness was his lack of application to the process of getting them right.
Consider also the working day. Rallies demand stamina and focus. Drivers typically leave the service area at 7am and are at the wheel pretty much all day. Take day two of next weekend’s Rally France: after checking in at the first time control (7am) it’s an 89.36km drive just to get to the start of the first stage, with a similarly big commute of 128.45km from the end of the last stage to parc ferme, checking in after 6.30pm. In all, the day comprises 148.39km of competitive stages and 397.09km of liaison sections. Planning and punctuality reigns. Every minute is accounted for, every twist and turn of those 148,390 metres of stage has to be rigorously planned in the pace notes: which blind corners can be taken flat; which corners can be cut; and which corners can’t be cut.
This is why Kimi’s rivals regularly outpace him by between one and two seconds per kilometre; they’re not necessarily gifted with better car control, but they have better discipline and focus, and they’re better prepared. Yes, Kimi has been driving a second-string Citroen, but so is Petter Solberg – and he is a regular contender for the podium, whereas Kimi’s usual habitat is the back half of the top 10. This is not a turn-up-and-drive sport.
Kimi has dipped his toes in the NASCAR pool but made it known that he was not interested in driving there full time. NASCAR, unfortunately, has little patience for entrants who aren’t fully committed. More importantly, neither do potential sponsors. Kimi also recently made it known that he was no longer prepared to fund his WRC effort out of his own pocket, and that he would only continue in the sport if he was paid to drive. The response from WRC teams and the sport in general has been, “Bye, then…” In a final act of wilful career sabotage he announced that travelling to the Australian round of the WRC was too big a journey, and then failed to turn up. As a result, he has now been excluded from the championship.
So, bridges duly burned in F1, NASCAR and the WRC. What of these other mystical targets, Le Mans and the Indy 500? Kimi recently tested Peugeot’s 908 Le Mans car, and since the team is looking to replace the accident-prone Pedro Lamy and not-quite-quick-enough Marc Gene for next year, this is his most likely destination. But it will not be a big-money deal, and Le Mans is a harder gig than many people think. The Indy 500? It’s hard enough to get the sponsorship even if you’ve previously won the race (just ask Dan Wheldon). Turning up as a rookie and expecting to win is just asking for trouble (just ask Nelson Piquet, Nigel Mansell, et al).
Kimi has been a good earner for his management team, David and Steve Robertson, but now the udders of this particular cash cow are running dry. When you’re reduced to whispering in the ear of compliant pressmen that your charge is – hush hush! – making a visit to the Williams F1 factory, the game is nearly up. No doubt Team Willy would love to have Kimi (the Kimi of half a decade ago, that is), but they can’t afford him and he doesn’t work for free – and don’t forget that his last employer in F1 was so underwhelmed by him that they bought him out of his contract.
The Robertsons will no doubt be enduring many a sleepless night over the coming weeks as they try to find Kimi a paying berth. Nor poppy nor mandragora nor all the drowsy syrups of the world shall medicine them to that sweet sleep they owe yesterday, that’s for sure. To the motorsport industry at large, Kimi is now the unemployable in pursuit of the unlikely.