Berthold Bouman, F1 correspondent
More motivated than ever
With the return of Kimi Raikkonen, Lotus found themselves in the limelight last week during the first pre-season testing days in Jerez, Spain. Not a surprise as the Iceman as his nickname is, is still hugely popular amongst Formula One fans, and one could perhaps say his somewhat lackluster past two seasons in the FIA World Rally Championship (WRC) has rekindled his interest in the FIA Formula One World Championship again. The fans and the media have welcomed the return of the Finn to the Lotus team - a team currently seeking to become one of the top teams in Formula One.
Lotus has big plans for 2012, and with star driver Raikkonen they might be able to make their dreams come true. Raikkonen himself remains as ever remarkably cool about his return to the sport, and mainly had to fend of his critics ever since Lotus announced he would be driving for the black and gold Genii owned Lotus team.
“I think he's more motivated than ever,” said Lotus team owner Gerard Lopez. "I can assure you that Kimi came back because he wanted to race and that money was a side issue. The more people that question it the better, because it's only going to motivate him further. It's a very important step in getting the team to where we want it to be, which is one of the top teams in Formula One.”
The 32-year old Raikkonen had to answer many questions about his motivation, and after the Lotus E20 unveil last week he said, “There's always talk about my motivation, written by people who don't know me and couldn't have an idea on how strong my motivation is. If I didn't feel I had the motivation, I would stop. I've never had any issues with motivation.”
About the 2012 season he stated, “I think people expect things from me, but as long as I know that I'm giving 100 per cent and I'm happy with my driving then I'm happy," he said. "If those aspects are true and it's not enough, then it's not enough.”
Also his outings in the WRC contributed to his Formula One return, as he still loves the on track wheel-to-wheel racing, “I realized how much I was missing it. That doesn't mean I am sick of rallying; actually I'd like to do both but that's not possible. But if you want to race and you have the choice, first you look at Formula One! The fact was that I missed racing. The longer I was away from Formula One, the more I wanted to go back there.”
Raikkonen’s arrival at the Enstone-based Lotus team is also a great boost for their morale, certainly after the disastrous 2011 campaign when Lotus lost their star driver Robert Kubica after the Pole had sustained serious injuries during a rally crash. German Nick Heidfeld took over his seat, but although he and Russian Vitaly Petrov both scored a third place during the first two Grands Prix, the Lotus team could not impress and were in fact struggling for the remainder of the season.
To make things worse, the revolutionary forwards pointing exhaust system the team had developed proved to be a debacle of epic proportions, on two occasions the Lotus caught fire and the team even had to write off one chassis after the car had caught fire for a second time during the Hungarian Grand Prix. Lotus had hoped Kubica would be fit to race again in 2012, but it wasn’t to be and the news Raikkonen would drive for Lotus in 2012 soon emerged.
Can Raikkonen fulfill Lotus’ ambition?
“Believe me, he is there,” said Lotus Team Principal Eric Boullier, addressing the issue whether Raikkonen would be quick again. Asked whether Raikkonen can fill the ‘void’ Kubica has left in 2011 Boullier had no doubts whatsoever, “Right away - yes!" And he explained, "Because, in terms of team morale and motivation - and even team guidance - he is there, because he is a guy that knows what he wants. I promise you he is committed and, as I just said, he knows what he wants.”
Asked whether Raikkonen can fulfill Lotus’ ambition to make it into the top four of the Constructors’ Championship Boullier answered, “He will be a potential race winner if we give him an adequate car. Obviously, this is the package that he needs to have. My guess is that at the beginning of the European 'season' he will be ready.”
Boullier was certainly impressed after two days of testing, “I know already that he is not struggling. I have seen how he has been driving,” said Boullier, adding, “Without even looking at the times, you can see from the line that he was cruising around the track on and how he uses the car. I am sure that he will need some time to find the last tweaks to be 100 per cent sure. Kimi is very confident and he is very happy with the car, its balance and handling.”
It is no secret Raikkonen doesn’t like the commercial aspects of the sport including the mandatory FIA press conferences, the sponsor obligations, and all the interviews with the media, he simply doesn’t like all the glitter and glamour. But now he is more than happy to talk to the press about his return to Formula One. “There has been quite a bit of noise in the press about my comeback and there have been a lot of rumors,” he explained.
“It has no effect on me - sometimes you hear some nonsense and sometimes you hear nice things. I have never really looked at what people say or think. I do my own thing and as long as I'm happy with it then that's the main thing for me.”
Romain Grosjean is happy to have Raikkonen as a team mate, and he remarked, “It took a little time and I did wonder what kind of relationship we would develop, but I think he is a really nice guy. Whatever I have asked, he has answered.”
DRS is just a button
It has been said many times that many things have changed during Raikkonen’s two-year absence, but is that really true? True, the cars have changed, but the latest gadgets like the blown floor and most notably the blown diffuser have been banned, the F-Duct and blown exhausts have been banned as well, so Raikkonen doesn’t have to worry about those novelties at all.
Refueling has been banned which means cars now start very heavy with topped up fuel tanks, as the race progresses the fuel is burned and the car gets lighter, and therefore the characteristics of the cars also change as the race progresses. Again nothing to worry about for Raikkonen, other drivers have quickly adapted to those new circumstances. Raikkonen therefore commented, “That’s no big deal - the pit stop is just a little shorter. Driving with the heavier car is not like day and night; it’s still the same sport.”
But as Raikkonen put it, “The biggest difference will be the tyres. It will take more time to learn how get them working properly. I hear that the tyres have a lot of grip right from the outset and from my point of view, it is important that the front end works.” But he is confident he will get used to the Pirellis, “For me it’s easier to get used to the tyres than it was for the others a year ago. For me it’s more like a new beginning.”
One thing that is completely new for Raikkonen is the Drag Reduction System (DRS), a system that makes overtaking easier, but Raikkonen wouldn’t be Raikkonen and thus slammed the DRS ‘push to pass’ button. “The way the DRS wings work is for me a little ridiculous,” he said to the German Auto, Motor und Sport magazine.
According to the 2007 World Champion overtaking is way too easy with DRS, “Overtaking is not really a great art anymore. You just put the wing down and go past easily.” And he added, ”The guy in front can't really do anything. But I agree that at least it makes the show better.”
Nevertheless he is confident he can handle Formula One’s overtaking aids, “I've driven with KERS before and DRS is just a button. Once you've done it a few times it will become automatic. There's just a few more buttons to push on the steering wheel.”
A new Ice Age?
Even more impressive was Raikkonen’s pace during the very first test day in Jerez de la Frontera in Spain last week, the Finn who had never driven the Lotus E20 and wasn’t familiar with the new Pirelli tyres either, made no bones about it and after 75 laps recorded the fasted lap time of 1m19.670s.
"I do have a good feeling, and that was not always the case in my career after the first day of testing, but I would rather be P1 at the end of the first race than at the end of the first test day," said Raikkonen with a smile.
Boullier was quite happy with the first test days, “For the first test it looks good, but still you can't really speculate on anything. Between here and Melbourne, all the cars will change a lot.”
Lotus Technical Director James Allison was impressed by Raikkonen’s feedback, “So far his feedback on the car has been good. Kimi has been complimentary about the balance of the car, the braking and other features. The steering is slightly heavy for his liking at the moment, but other than that he's been comfortable.”
And he added, “The best thing about the week was the drivers' feedback, we had not heard anything as positive in the last couple of seasons. The important thing is that we've completed the most number of laps so far; while there are obviously no prizes for that, it gives us a strong platform on which to base our development programme.”
About Raikkonen skills Allison said, “You can tell Kimi is a class act. He gets in the car and is on the pace straight away; there's no building up to it. His commitment is instant and the lap times show that. His fitness level is also good which has allowed him to be consistent, and he hasn't had any major 'moments' out on track; he seems to have everything very much under control.”
You can tell Kimi is a class act. He gets in the car and is on the pace straight away
Raikkonen was not ‘showboating’ said McLaren’s Jenson Button in Jerez, the Finn’s pace was genuine according to the Briton. “We maybe haven't seen eye to eye a lot of the time when we've been racing, but he's a very quick driver, a World Champion. He's obviously in a very competitive car, and whatever they did today - low fuel or whatever - it was still quick,” the 2009 World Champion said after the first day of testing.
After the second day of testing, and another 117 laps behind his belt, Raikkonen was adamant the Lotus E20 could be a winning car. “We seem to have a good car and I have a positive feeling from this first test. There was a small issue with damage to the floor this morning when I went off and came back on to the circuit. An edge on a kerb caused the damage and we lost some time as it was repaired.”
After completing his 117 laps, almost the distance of two Grands Prix, Raikkonen had encountered no problems whatsoever, ”Physically, I felt fine after 117 laps. Conditions were quite windy on track but despite this I got a better feeling from the car so it’s positive progress.”
The Formula One fraternity can be sure about one thing, the Iceman is back and he is very determined to make a successful comeback, he seems to be more dedicated than ever, and the first pre-season test showed Lotus has given him a car worthy of a champion, and if there is one man on the 2012 grid who can do the impossible, it must be Raikkonen.
And with the return of the Iceman the 2012 season will have no less than six World Champions on the start grid. Seven-time World Champion Michael Schumacher admitted he was happy to see the ex-Ferrari driver return to the paddock, “I'm happy for him, very happy for him.” About Raikkonen’s lap times on Monday Schumacher commented, “It is the first day and at the end of the test and then we can make a proper judgment of what those times were worth. But I am really happy for the team and for him.”
2005 and 2006 World Champion Fernando Alonso, who in fact replaced Raikkonen at Ferrari at the end of 2009, also welcomed his return, “I welcome him back. He's a great driver. He's one of the drivers with the biggest talent on the grid, a World Champion, a wonderful person - it's going to be a pleasure to race alongside him.”
Alonso is already looking forward to battling with Raikkonen, “I'm not comparing him with anyone, but it's not the same to start a race and get to the first corner and have Kimi Raikkonen alongside you than having a young driver or a rookie. Fighting with Champions like this gives you a different feeling and more security.”
Next World Champion on the list is Lewis Hamilton who won the title in 2008, but lost the 2007 title to the Finn during the very last race of the season with only one point difference. Perhaps Hamilton still hasn’t forgotten about that battle, as we were unable to find any comments from Hamilton referring to Raikkonen’s return.
Button, the 2009 World Champion, was initially surprised about his return, but later welcomed him and he now believes he will be on the pace immediately. “I think it's really good for the sport. As a driver, he's very, very competitive. If he really wants to race, he's going to be quick. It's good to have him back and the races will be more fun and obviously the evenings after the races will be more fun,” he said with a smile, referring to Raikkonen’s reputation as a party animal.
And the last and current World Champion is of course Sebastian Vettel, who won the title in 2010 and 2011. Vettel initially also predicted a difficult comeback. “A driver like him has the potential and the talent to get used to things again. But even myself if I look back two years and the car that I raced two years ago, how many things changed is unbelievable,” said Vettel. “The important thing is your happy with yourself and what you do. If a return to Formula One to make him happy again, I hope he got it.”
And McLaren Team Principal Martin Whitmarsh has the last word in this story about the return of the Iceman, “No fewer than six World Champions will be competing in Formula One this season - more than ever before - and each of them, including Kimi, is not only a fantastic racing driver but also a colorful character with a robust fans' following and a unique global allure,” he said. “If the Lotus car is quick, Kimi will be quick in it; it's as simple as that in my view.”