Raikkonen to end McLaren's Finnish era 21 Oct 2006
After five seasons, 11 pole positions and nine wins, this weekends Brazilian Grand Prix will be Kimi Raikkonens last race outing for McLaren. Next season Raikkonen will head to Maranello to join Felipe Massa at Ferrari as Michael Schumachers replacement. But how will the Finns time at McLaren be remembered?
Raikkonen caught McLarens attention during his debut season with Sauber in 2001. A karting graduate, he had won the British Renault series in 2000 and after several successful Sauber tests unexpectedly landed a race drive with the Swiss team. Given he had only made 23 single-seater race starts prior to his Grand Prix debut, many questioned the FIAs wisdom in granting such an inexperienced driver a Super License. From the outset, however, Raikkonens pace and consistency won favour and before the year was out he had scored nine championship points and the admiration of the paddock.
With Mika Hakkinen about to retire, McLaren boss Ron Dennis was on the look out for a driver capable of replacing the two-time world champion, and swiftly signed up Raikkonen on a lengthy five-year contract. Dennis had enjoyed a particularly close and fruitful relationship with Hakkinen, so it came as no surprise that he selected another Scandinavian to take the place of his original Flying Finn. But would Raikkonen really be able to fill Hakkinens shoes?
Denniss high hopes boosted the young drivers confidence and his first season with the team was a considerable success. Neither he nor team mate David Coulthard won a race but Raikkonen scored four podium finishes and 24 championship points, despite 10 retirements. Although Coulthard - a McLaren veteran of six years - ended the season with almost double the points of his less experienced partner, Raikkonen outclassed the Scot in qualifying and singled himself out as a future contender.
In 2003, Raikkonen enjoyed his first taste of victory in Malaysia. The win was shored up by a further ten podiums and he ended the season just two points shy of upsetting Michael Schumachers run of drivers titles. It seemed that Raikkonen was indeed the new Hakkinen. But reliability problems hit the team in 2004 and made for a disappointing season. In the three opening races, Raikkonen suffered successive retirements but a pole position at Silverstone and a dominant victory in the Belgian Grand Prix reaffirmed his ability and put the fading Coulthard still further in the shade.
The Scots exit in 2005 marked the arrival of Juan Pablo Montoya at McLaren, but like Coulthard before him, the Colombian would generally fail to match Raikkonens form. After a bleak start to the season, again marred by poor reliability, the team gradually gained momentum and Raikkonen ultimately enjoyed five poles, five podiums and seven wins. But despite the teams domination of the latter races, Renault and Fernando Alonso retained the edge in the title chase, leaving the Finn to finish runner-up for a second time in three years.
It was a bitter blow for Raikkonen and perhaps no coincidence that soon after rumours began to surface of a possible move to Ferrari. His partying away from the cockpit - increasingly seized upon by the media - never quite seemed to gel with the grey formality of McLaren and, with Fernando Alonso confirmed by the team for 2007, many began predicting that Raikkonen future may indeed lie elsewhere.
Not that the speculation affected his driving, which this season has remained as determined and consistent as ever. Montoyas unscheduled exit and Pedro de la Rosas swift promotion in July did little to ruffle Raikkonens feathers and he has scored in every race he has finished. However, he has also retired six times and - with his Ferrari deal now safely confirmed - lies only fifth in the drivers championship. This weekends Brazilian Grand Prix is his last chance to go out on a high for McLaren, but the teams recent form suggests its unlikely.
Whatever happens at Interlagos on Sunday, Raikkonens time with McLaren will ultimately be remembered as one of frustration. After narrowly losing out on the championship twice, he has yet to prove himself the equal of either Schumacher or Alonso - something many believe he is. Others will insist you make your own luck in Formula One racing and that perhaps his poor fortunes with McLaren were as much to do with his driving style as any frailties in the car. Either way, the move to Ferrari signals a fresh start for the Finn - and hopefully the chance for us all to discover just how great he really is.