Breaking the ice - Kimi Raikkonen 02 Dec 2003
For a country more usually associated with rally success than single-seater racing, Finland has a glittering heritage in Formula One thanks to past champions Keke Rosberg and Mika Hakkinen. It was the latter who welcomed the nation's latest superstar, Kimi Raikkonen, to the sport when he joined with Sauber in 2001.
Perhaps surprisingly, though, Raikkonen himself admits he has little or no interest in such history. "Not really. Of course it would be nice to join them," he admitted before his recent championship showdown in Japan, "but if it doesn't happen this year then I'll try again. Hopefully it will happen in the future."
And you'd get very short odds against it happening, if not in 2004 then certainly in the short-term. Raikkonen is the only driver ever to have gone from European karting to Formula One within a season. This is what Jost Capito, now head of Ford's motorsport programme but then a Sauber engineer, had to say about Raikkonen's swift graduation after his first Formula One test back in 2000:
"We were all very enthusiastic about Kimi having the test, and Willy Rampf, Jacky Eeckelaert and I were in Mugello to see what happened. Well, the guy was just totally amazing. Right from the start he knew exactly what he was doing, he was calm and extremely professional. And he was quick. Right from the start he was very quick. Forget how little experience he'd had - he drove that car with speed and precision as if he'd been born to it."
Looking back, it seems laughable that Raikkonen was given his superlicence on a race-by-race basis. Mika Hakkinen thinks he is fantastic. David Coulthard believes he is better than Juan Pablo Montoya. Michael Schumacher predicted as long ago as 2001 that he will win World Championships, and with only slightly better fortune he could have been crowned in 2003. Whether he would have made a good champion is a moot point, with his apparent dislike for the spotlight of publicity and the perception that he lacks the personality of a Montoya or Villeneuve. But it may yet be something he grows into.
Triple World Champion Jackie Stewart came tantalisingly close to the Formula One drivers' title in 1968, only to lose out in the final round to Graham Hill. Later the Scot admitted that he had not yet been ready for everything that being World Champion would have brought into his life, and that the extra season he ran before winning his first crown in 1969 was crucial to the way he coped with the subsequent success.
Few will be surprised if Raikkonen's career benefits from a similar pattern. Next year McLaren will have a dramatically improved machine, the MP4-19, which will no longer rely on the 2001 concepts that sometimes hamstrung the MP4-17D. "If we can improve the car again as much as we did over the last winter," Raikkonen says, "we should be in with a good chance to fight for every race next year."
This year the final reckoning left him just three points shy of championship glory. Next season, however, Schumacher, Montoya and Alonso have good reason to be worried: Kimi Raikkonen wants to leave them out in the cold.
(The above is an edited extract from a much longer feature on Kimi Raikkonen. It is available exclusively in the December issue of Formula 1 Magazine.)