Kimi Raikkonen famously does not show a lot of emotion, but it emerged over the British Grand Prix weekend that he enjoys a bit of schadenfreude.
A little over 24 hours after it was announced that Ferrari had re-signed him for 2017, the monotone, mumbling Finn held his usual post-qualifying news conference.
“I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think I can drive well,” he said on the subject of his new contract. “I am very happy about it. It gives me pleasure to see disappointed people.”
It was a pointed riposte to the many pundits – including BBC F1’s own Allan McNish – who had suggested that Ferrari ought to look to the future when it was considering a partner for Sebastian Vettel, and not re-appoint a soon-to-be 37-year-old whose best days, they felt, were behind him.
To Raikkonen’s fans – and he has perhaps more than any other F1 driver – such thoughts are anathema. To them, the Finn is the fastest man on four wheels, and he just needs a car that suits him to prove it.
Are Raikkonen’s fans right?
For anyone holding that opinion, the stats make awkward reading.
Raikkonen has not exactly made a convincing case for still being an absolutely top-level grand prix driver since he rejoined Ferrari in 2014.
In that first season, his team-mate was Spaniard Fernando Alonso, who beat him in qualifying 16 times in 19 races, was an average of 0.529 seconds a lap quicker and scored nearly three times as many points.
If you take only the races in which a comparison in qualifying was fair (ie, eliminating any at which either had a problem), it was 12-1 to Alonso at an average of 0.548secs.
Last year, Sebastian Vettel joined the team. There were 12 races at which a direct comparison was fair and the German was quicker 10 times, at an average of 0.348secs. Overall, the gap was 0.463secs.
This year though, in a car more to his liking, Raikkonen has made a better case for himself. In 10 races so far, Vettel has been quicker seven times, at an average of 0.122secs.
And in the championship, Raikkonen is actually ahead by eight points – although that picture is skewed heavily by the large number of reliability problems suffered by Vettel.
What is Raikonnen’s appeal?
Raikkonen’s image – at least the on-track one – was forged in the early 2000s, when he established a swashbuckling reputation as an electrically fast charger at McLaren.
It was based on races such as the 2005 Japanese Grand Prix, which he won from 17th on the grid, taking the lead with a superlative move around the outside of Giancarlo Fisichella’s Renault at the fast Turn One on the last lap.
And then there were incidents such as qualifying at Spa in 2002, when a car had suffered an engine failure at the top of the 180mph Eau Rouge swerves, and Raikkonen was the next man along.
Television pictures showed him blasting over the top of Raidillon (the left-hander over a crest at the top of Eau Rouge) into a cloud of smoke totally unsighted, but with his foot hard in it.
There is perhaps a debate to be had about just how good those McLarens were, and whether they flattered him. But in terms of Raikkonen’s driving, back then, there was not a lot not to like.
Is he as good as he was?
Many argue that Raikkonen has lost his edge since he joined Ferrari in 2007.
Yes, he won the team’s last driver’s title that year after making up 17 points on Lewis Hamilton in the final two races. But that came thanks to a spectacular implosion at McLaren, as well as being handed victory in the final race of the season by Ferrari deliberately delaying Brazilian team-mate Felipe Massa in the pits.
The fact is that more than two-and-a-half seasons as Massa’s team-mate, Raikkonen was shaded by the the Brazilian, who out-qualified him 24-21 and out-scored him 213 points to 203.
Raikkonen was then dropped to make way for Alonso, who annihilated Massa over four seasons, prompting Ferrari to re-sign Raikkonen. And we already know what happened next.
His fans argue that for Raikkonen to be at his best, he needs a car that behaves exactly the way he wants – with a positive, responsive front end and a predictable rear.
But an F1 driver has to make the best of the car he’s given. If he drives less effectively if he does not like it, that has to be seen as a failing.
The core of Raikkonen’s appeal
So how to account for Raikkonen’s enduring appeal, other than as a historical throwback? His personality has a lot to do with it.
For journalists, he is, frankly, often a bit of a nightmare.
|Raikkonen’s best team radio quotes|
|“Just leave me alone, I know what I’m doing” – in response to his team updating him on his position, Abu Dhabi 2012|
|“Do you want me to keep doing laps and laps, because I get nothing out of this” – on repeated lap testing in free practice two, Spain 2015|
|“Where are the blue flags? I have been following him the whole ******* lap” – following a back-marker, European GP 2016|
|“That guy keeps pushing me off every time when I’m next to him. So if that’s legal, then I will do the same” – frustrated at Max Verstappen’s driving style, Texas 2015|
He can, it has to be said, sometimes give long, informative answers, even a hint of a smile. This is “chatty Kimi”, although the mumbling never goes away and it is often really quite hard to catch what he’s saying.
But, usually, his general disdain for anything other than driving shines through, and there is a succession of non-committal answers and cliches.
Frustration with this has, for many, turned into a kind of resigned amusement. One journalist has even invented a game he calls “Raikkonen bingo”.
He goes into news conferences with a list of Raikkonen’s most-used phrases and ticks them off as they come up: “It is what it is.” “I don’t know.” “It’s the same for everyone.” “We do our own thing.” And everyone’s favourite: “Bwoah” – with which Raikkonen starts every answer to a potentially difficult question.
The contrast with Alonso – a driver who has been around just as long and has every reason to be bored of news conferences, struggling as he is with a down-on-power mid-grid car – is striking. The Spaniard is never not interesting, treats every question with respect, and provides a good, quotable answer.
But it is this refusal to conform that appeals to people about Raikkonen. Never mind that answering questions is part of his job, that giving rubbish answers short-changes his fans as well as the media. People like that he is different, and seems not to care.
And his brusque team radio utterances – most famously “Leave me alone, I know what I’m doing” as he was on his way to victory with Lotus in Abu Dhabi in 2012 – only burnish his reputation.
The fact that many who have worked with him say the “Iceman” image is an inaccurate construct is irrelevant. An image – and a successful one – it is.
So why have Ferrari kept him?
While a cool image might be good for Ferrari’s sponsors – among them the tobacco giant Philip Morris, which has made billions by leveraging the image of the quiet non-conformist – it does not win races.
There is no doubt that the team looked around elsewhere. They have, for some time, been seriously interested in both Red Bull drivers Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen.
But there were problems with both for 2017.
For a start, they are under contract to their current team – Australian Ricciardo until the end of 2018 and Dutchman Verstappen for a year longer. So even if getting one of them was possible – and there does not seem a good reason for leaving an ascendant Red Bull for a struggling Ferrari right now – it would be expensive.
Ferrari were concerned, though, that signing either would destabilise the team dynamic, particularly with Vettel, who was beaten by Ricciardo when they were team-mates in 2014.
And destabilising the team is the last thing Ferrari needs as it becomes painfully clear that they are still as far away from winning championships as ever.
As the decision over what to do for next year approached, a number of other drivers were in the frame.
Sources close to the team say Force India’s Sergio Perez was being pushed by fellow Mexican Carlos Slim, the billionaire who is on the board of Philip Morris. Other names under consideration included Finnish Williams driver Valtteri Bottas and Toro Rosso’s Spanish driver Carlos Sainz.
All had the same problems: they were under contract, to one degree or another, to their existing teams for 2017; and there was the question of whether they were really any better than Raikkonen.
Vettel, meanwhile, was pushing for Raikkonen to stay. They get on, there are no intra-team politics, and they like similar things from a car. And, cynics would say, Vettel knows he has Raikkonen handled.
What did Vettel make of the decision to keep Raikkonen?
“I think it was the right call,” he says. “We know our primary target is to catch up so we need to be all aligned and pushing in the same direction.”
He describes Raikkonen as “the least complicated” team-mate he has had in F1.
“In general I got along with all the team-mates I had,” the German says. “Here and there we had some difficulties but with Kimi there are no politics. That is good. It keeps everything quiet.
“We put our own egos aside. They are not so big. I would say Kimi and I have the least ego problems of the whole paddock, which is good for the team. We race hard but outside the car there is no problem.”
And his driving skills?
“He is a world champion for a reason,” Vettel says. “He could have been a multiple world champion if the early years of McLaren gave him a better car. He is one of the best drivers we have on the grid, no doubt.”
In the end, the obvious choice
Whether you subscribe to that final point rather depends on how big your sample is.
It would be hard to make a convincing case, for example, that Raikkonen is as good as Britain’s Lewis Hamilton, Alonso, Ricciardo, Verstappen, Vettel, Germany’s Nico Rosberg or Briton Jenson Button. And that’s nearly a third of the grid before you even start to debate anybody else.
But the bottom line is that, right now, Raikkonen is perfect for Ferrari – he is no trouble and he is quick enough to keep Vettel honest, but not so quick as to be a threat. The perfect number two.
At a time when Ferrari’s average qualifying gap to Mercedes is nearly a second, there are other far more important things to worry about. As they say themselves: “Drivers are not our problem at the moment.”
On that basis, keeping Raikkonen was, ultimately, a no-brainer.