Focus - why Raikkonen can still be champion 02 Oct 2003
Kimi Raikkonen has become a different driver since he won his first Grand Prix in Malaysia in March. It's not that he has become faster - his speed has never been in doubt - rather he has matured. Hence he is still in with a chance (albeit slim) of taking the championship.
He is more consistent and dependable, and seemingly less frenetic behind the wheel. As a result, his performances in one-lap qualifying have improved as the year has gone on - four front-row placings - and his race drives have been sublime, netting him nine podiums from 15 races.
All the more impressive is that he has done this in the McLaren MP4-17D - fundamentally the same car that was outpaced by both Ferrari and Williams last year. There were aero and suspension updates over the winter and Michelin's tyres have improved dramatically since 2002, but may feel the biggest difference is Raikkonen.
And, were it not for two cruel twists of fate, he would be leading the championship as we head into the final race. He was awarded the win in Brazil, only to have it taken away following a timing error, and in the European Grand Prix he was romping to a dominant win only for his Mercedes engine to blow with 35 laps of the race remaining.
An arguably more realistic measure of the MP4-17D's capabilities is David Coulthard's current seventh place in the championship, with just two podium finishes on the board. The gulf between him and Raikkonen has been huge this year, both in terms of approach and speed, and it shows on the points table.
Last year Coulthard finished 17 points ahead of Raikkonen in the championship, but this year - with one race remaining - the Finn is already 38 points to the better. That's an infinitely bigger margin than Mika Hakkinen ever placed over Coulthard in the six years that they were team mates.
So, despite being nine points behind Michael Schumacher heading to Suzuka, Raikkonen undoubtedly has the speed and consistency to take the title. And there are other extraneous factors that will also play into his hands.
Firstly, unlike Schumacher, he has nothing to lose. He knows he must win in Japan to stand any chance of the title, but that even if he does he is unlikely to be champion. He can go all out for victory, safe in the knowledge that he has had a stunning season, regardless of the outcome. Schumacher, on the other hand, knows that one driving error or one mechanical gremlin, could end his chances of ever clinching that record sixth title.
Secondly, Raikkonen has Coulthard as his wing man. Team tactics will undoubtedly come into play at McLaren in Japan and Coulthard, being the team player that he is, will unquestionably play ball. This brings Raikkonen immediately onto a par with Schumacher, who has Rubens Barrichello by his side.
Finally McLaren know how to win world championships. "We make history, you only write about it," said Ron Dennis in 1988, after his team had won 15 out of 16 races. And Raikkonen becoming the youngest ever world champion, at the wheel of a two-year old car, would make for a very special piece of history indeed.
(The above is an edited extract from a much longer feature, available exclusively in the October issue of Formula 1 Magazine, in which different contributors put forward the case for each of the key championship contenders.)