Monday, January 7, 2008

Kimi Räikkönen - World Champion, 2007

I'm not what you would call a petrol head. In fact, I'm not even sure what the term means. Despite that, I kind of enjoy watching things on 4 wheels go around in circles at great speed. Especially when it's called F1. Don't know why. In 2004, for instance, I spent every other weekend trudging to the flat of some guys who happened to have Star Sports to suffer their taunts on yet another Michael Schumacher win, and yet another Mercedes blow up for poor Kimi.

The long and short of it is that, I've been a long-time fan of the guy, and I wanted a post - even a much delayed one - to commemorate his triumph last year. The trouble is, I cannot write one of those well-thought-out, insightful posts, full of impressive technical jargon ("a perfect manipulator of a car's dynamic weight", to quote Peter Windsor, for instance - no clue what that means), on Kimi Raikkonen. So, I'll do the next best thing. Cannibalize other people's posts shamelessly, and refer you to articles like this one, or this one.

My first memory of becoming aware that such a thing as F1 existed was as a young boy, hearing on the news that someone named Ayrton Senna had been killed in a race. My first memory of watching a race is of Schumacher punting Damon Hill off the track later that same year to win his first championship. Needless to say, I've been a Schumacher hater ever since, and Hill was my first F1 hero. Over the years, I ended up supporting anyone who was the chief challenger to the German. Jacques Villenueve, Mika Hakkinen, until, starting about 2000, the combination of an unparalleled Ferrari domination and an inability to gain control of the TV remote on Sunday evenings forced me to give F1 a miss.

And then came 2003, when this young guy with a funny name and deadpan face took the lead in the drivers' championship. And with great interest I followed the championship that year. I really took to the man they called The Iceman (a nickname like that does pique your curiosity about someone). He was cold and distant in his interviews. He often made do with one word, where a few sentences were expected of him. And when those sentences did come, they came in monotone, no pauses between words or even sentences - just to add one other layer of unintelligibility over the thick accent - and all delivered with the air of a man who would rather be anywhere else. ("Kimi, what are your thoughts on Nescafe (a team sponsor)?" "Idon'tknowIdon'tdrinkcoffee"). In short - used as I am to seeing sportsmen trying to come off like Brother Teresas - a breath of fresh air.

Furthermore, he was leading the reviled Schumacher in the championship! It was not to be that year, though. He would end second in the drivers' championship, just 2 points behind Schumacher in a car - a modified version of their 2002 car, as McLaren's challenger for the year was not deemed good enough to race - that finished third best in the constructors' championship behind Ferrari and Williams.

Perhaps I shouldn't have started off with the 2003 season. Oh, well. The chap was born on October 17th, 1979 in Finland. He grew up and became an F1 driver. His entry into F1 was rather controversial. He had just 23 car races ever prior to his first F1 race - something, I gather, that is rather unprecedented.

Some fellow drivers, the President of the FIA, among others, felt he could be a danger to other drivers, due to his inexperience. Raikkonen put paid to those feelings soon enough, with a drive to 6th and a championship point in his very first race. Well, I don't know too much else about his early career. If you really must know more, you could try this article at Motorsport Ramblings. I've pasted a large part of it below...

...I suspect the story of Kimi's rise to the top of the sport is actually the more interesting of the two. Much has been made of Lewis Hamilton's relatively ordinary background (compare and contrast with current English GP2 front runner Mike Conway, whose father has made a fortune in civil engineering, or best-placed British F3 runner, Stephen Jelley, whose family run a large house-building business) but the truth is, he was picked up very young by the most successful F1 team in the business, who have been instrumental in managing his career ever since. Had Mclaren not shown an interest in Lewis at the age of 13, one wonders whether he would even have got beyond karting.

Kimi Raikkonen, by contrast, had no such early assistance. His father was a construction worker and his mother a clerk in local government. By the standards of some I have dealt with in my working life, he wasn't poor but it can safely be assumed that they were in no position to personally put up the £200k cost of his season in Formula Renault. From early on, he has been managed by the previously relatively unknown father and son duo of Steve and Dave Robertson (Steve was a middling F3 driver, some 20 years back, but to my knowledge, he hadn't previously been involved in driver management) who somehow managed to persuade Peter Sauber to give him a run in one of his cars at a time when he had only a Formula Renault title to his name, at the end of 2000. The Swiss veteran team owner was so impressed by what he saw, that he quickly offered to hire the inexperienced Finn to race for the team in 2001. There was brief concern that he was simply too inexperienced to be in F1, and he was granted only a probationary superlicence at the beginning of the year. These were concerns which largely vanished when he scored points on his debut in Australia.

On closer inspection, one of the interesting things about Kimi's ascent to Formula 1 was that he did it without ever really having access to the best equipment. In Finnish karting, he was narrowly beaten in his debut season by Toni Vilander (last seen pursuing a living in the FIA GT series). This might seem a surprise, given that that Vilander never went on to anything like the same level of success, but on closer inspection, it had an awful lot to do with the fact that Raikkonen was karting on the cheap - unable to service or replace his engines as frequently, and often trying to eke more races out of the tyres than his rivals. There is even a story (which I have been unable to verify) that he turned up to a European karting series event in the rain, couldn't afford treaded tyres, and beat everyone while running slicks!

Certainly, one thing that comes across is that while Hamilton was very carefully prepared and groomed for F1 from a very young age, Kimi Raikkonen is much more an independent operator - a man little used to taking others' advice, and with little desire to be managed. In this, he is much more of a racing driver in the traditional mould. Going back 30 years or so, racing drivers seemed much more their own men. They tended not to be accompanied by their parents to the races, and many saw no need to employ a team manager. After all, in the 1970s, racing was still dangerous to an extent that few parents would actively encourage their offspring into it in the manner of, for instance, your typical tennis father. These days, it feels like it's increasingly hard to tell apart Anthony Hamilton or John Button from Richard Williams or Damir Dokic - save that neither seem quite so, how shall I put it, bonkers.

His F1 record, you can find out by reading some of the articles linked to above, or by using this fascinating site, What I will put down here is why I like him enough to turn on the TV 17 or 18 Sundays (and Saturdays) a year to watch him try to win. It's like this. I hate maths. I hate statistics. (I'm not above using statistics to prove that a particular favourite sportsman of mine is better than someone else, though.) The simple fact is, all these statistics are piled up by people other than me. And I don't get even the tiniest fraction of all the millions they make. Why should some chap from the other end of the world winning some trophy make me happy? Does me no benefit, is my point. To benefit me, I have to have some pleasure from watching them go about their business. Just winning is not enough - in fact, not even necessary. Dazzling skill is the easiest way to win my heart. Unfortunately, as my comments above indicate, I cannot really make out a driver's skills by watching him on TV. All I see is the cars going round and round, and the time sheets.

Which leaves how he competes, and the character of the man revealed through the way he competes. (Not by reading what the tabloids have to say.) As the just concluded Sydney Cricket Test shows,  you can have a record-equalling victory, and yet not only be panned almost universally for the way you got the result, but even have your head called for by your own supporters. Umm, back to Raikkonen. No psychological warfare, no belittling comments about competitors through the press, no whining, no complaining, in fact, as little talking to the press as possible. His battleground is the race track, and the rest, it doesn't matter. And above all, a fair racer, too. No controversies about cheating, or unfair behaviour for him. A sportsman.

More quoting, this time from F1Fanatic...

He’s also incredibly brave - take qualifying in Spa 2002 for example. Back in the days when qualifying was actually exciting, Kimi was starting a fast lap just as a BAR expired in the first sector. The expectation was Raikkonen's lap would be ruined. But no. Despite being able to see nothing at all, despite the fact that he had no idea if a stricken car would be blocking his path, the Finnish driver went faster in the first sector than he ever had before.

Just imagine that for a second, driving through a thick plume of smoke at top speed, with no reference points and only your imagination and memory for guidance. Some people called it madness, I prefer magnificent.

Failing that, take 2005 Nurburgring instead. You often here commentators use the phrase “driving the wheels off the car”, but rarely does a driver do such a thing. Unless your name is Kimi Raikkonen of course. Kimi was nearing the end of the race, but suffering from a flat spotted tyre, his car was in trouble. The front wheel was bouncing so much that fans in the grandstand could hear it ‘thumping’ over the noise of the V10.

The sensible choice would have been to pit and change the offending rubber, but Kimi was leading, and a win was at stake. Driving at almost 290km/h his car gave up before he did, and threw him into the wall.

Would he do the same again? Of course he would.

Someone's comments on the same article...

All that you guys are saying just confirms that the Kimster is a racer through and through - give him an old cardboard box to use as a sled and he’d race it, just like Gilles Villeneuve used to. One of the reasons people love Kimi is because he is there to race and nothing else, no politics, no mind games, no status seeking, just show him the car and he’ll race. To those of us who remember the great racing drivers, he is like an echo of an age long gone, a reminder of a time when drivers raced for love of the sport and not for money, when business was something done by men in suits in dingy offices and not by guys in helmets. Who gives a flying f**k whether he knows how to set the car up - he doesn’t need to, he drives what he’s given and makes it go faster than anyone else alive could do. That’s what a real driver is and it really doesn’t matter whether he ever gets the championship or not - he’s the best and we all know it.

Yup, that just about covers it.

1 comment:

PARKER said...

I am a big fan of Kimi, It was a kind joy watching him cruising in that car. No wonder he is being called Ice man, He is maintains his cool even on crunch stations that what made him won the title. If fortunate I will be taking the Formula1 course, Thank you.