Things change fast in F1, as might seem befitting. Kimi Raikkonen is merely the latest to be reminded as much. And rather brusquely.
Go back only two-and-a bit months and he had just claimed second place in the Bahrain Grand Prix after a drive full of fingertip racing car command and robust aggression. The air was rich of him finally rediscovering his ‘mojo’ after his egregious 2014 return season at Ferrari, seemingly a function of the Italian car now handling to his taste.
Yet now Kimi, in terms of his future employment prospects, seems not much further forward than he was in that annus horribilis. There is little secret that Ferrari is scanning alternatives for his seat for 2016.
Of course Kimi can still make a strong case for retention. With the above in mind he hardly can have become a bad driver within this brief period. Further he gets on peaceably with Sebastian Vettel, doesn’t rock the boat in the increasingly Seb-centric unit and brings home big points consistently. The sort of talented yet harmonious partnership that many teams yearn for. It shouldn’t be tossed away lightly.
But doubts remain. Qualifying remains a weakness by his own admission which often compromises his race results, and with spectacular ill-timing he’s squeezed race day losses of control on acceleration into his last two outings. Boss Maurizio Arrivabene has had a lot to say about his charge in public going back to before the Bahrain round, and while the synopsis is of someone giving Kimi chances to prove himself it also is of one not entirely sold.
The Finn has a couple of more overarching problems. One is money. Kimi earns a lot for it; his management’s deals the stuff of legend. It seems little wonder the speculation was that one of the Italian team’s early moves was to try to beat his retainer down.
Alternatives, and Cheaper Ones
The other problem, related to the first, is that there are a few credible alternative candidates. Valtteri Bottas appeared for a time top of the list; Arrivabene has admitted contact and Bild reported on a bid to buy him out of his contract though more recent reports elsewhere suggest Ferrari’s interest has tailed off. The same reports have now Daniel Ricciardo as the favoured choice and Christian Horner has also confirmed Ferrari interest in him, at least in the past. Some observers reckon Romain Grosjean could do a turn. Then there is Nico Hulkenberg, who Ferrari nearly signed once before (ironically enough Kimi got the gig instead) and who with the timing that Raikkonen lately lacks has just achieved rock star status with his Le Mans win. So plenty are cheaper, and would most probably do at least as good a job. The logic seems irrefutable.
Arrivabene has said recently that it’s “too early” to make decisions, but time remains critical. Ferrari historically has tended to make its driver announcements in Monza in early September and if this is the case then Kimi is running out of chances to sway things with his driving. After this weekend’s British Grand Prix there are a grand total of two races prior to the Italian weekend, one of which is just a fortnight beforehand.
But perhaps there is another problem that over-arches even the rest. Raikkonen to Ferrari second time around always had a curious air, and owed a lot to the Scuderia getting the fear mid-2013 that Fernando Alonso was going to walk and the squad therefore feeling that it needed to cover itself. Now Vettel is ensconced for the long term. With this, has Kimi simply outlived his usefulness?
Viewed from the Ferrari – for which read Arrivabene – perspective, however, it would seem that the answer is ‘yes’.
Kimi is a driver who flourishes when he’s given a car that satisfies his pathological need for a planted front end. Supply him with equipment that fails to meet that very specific criterion and you won’t get the best out of him. His talent is deep, not broad. Lotus know that, McLaren know that, just about every F1 fan under the sun knows that, but Ferrari…well, they’ve never learned the lessons of 2008 and 2009. Changing the suspension of the F2008 mid-season derailed Kimi’s chances of winning successive WDCs. The 2009 season was even worse, right up until Massa’s crash. As soon as the team was forced to concentrate on Kimi, the results improved dramatically. Coincidence? I think not.
Kimi’s misfortune is to have been paired with Alonso and Vettel in successive seasons. Not so much because of their talent, but because they are adept at building a team around them, leaving their team-mate to survive on whatever scraps are thrown from the table. Given his apolitical nature, Kimi’s always going to be on the back foot when up against the likes of Seb and Fred. You can bet your bottom dollar that Seb, not Kimi, is having the most influence in the development of this year’s car.
Ferrari, as the author has noted, has become increasingly focused on Vettel, with Raikkonen relegated to the ‘other guy’ status. Want evidence of this? Just listen to Maurizio Arrivabene’s soundbites. F1’s answer to Compo Simmonite has been fulsome to the point of gushing in his praise of Vettel while simultaneously (and publically) deploying questionable man-management techniques in his treatment of Raikkonen.
The Ferrari board will, of course, note that Vettel has amassed two wins (good ones, at that) whereas Kimi has ascended the podium just once this season. And yet, as James Allison has stated, there is little in terms of pace between the two Ferrari drivers. Even Raikkonen’s harshest critics must acknowledge that there have been occasions this season when he’s had the measure of Vettel. The difference between them is that Seb has made fewer mistakes while enjoying the better of the luck. Of course, it’s easier to have a clean weekend when your boss isn’t repeatedly banging on to the press about your contract. Even an Ice Man must get a little hot under the collar about that.
Ferrari’s option on Kimi’s services for 2016 expires at the end of this month. I think we can be fairly confident that it won’t be taken up. Arrivabene knows that Ricciardo and Hulkenberg would sell their grannnies to get into a better seat. Probably. My bet is that he’ll go for one of them, using Kimi’s avowed desire to stay with the Scuderia as a bargaining chip in negotiations.
What should Kimi do? In truth, he doesn’t have too much in the way of options. He’ll be 36 at the end of the season, doesn’t come cheap and doesn’t bring any major sponsors with him. And it’s that, rather than any diminution in his abilities, that will probably see his F1 career come to an end this season.
He’ll be missed.