Not long ago Raikkonen’s F1 career was in danger of being remembered more for the inferred insolence of him munching on an ice cream in the pits during the Malaysian Grand Prix in his final year at Ferrari than for the natural talent and raw on-track energy he showed competing on the limit at the very front of the field for many years.
But then along came Lotus.
The unceremonious ejection by Ferrari in 2009 and two years where he showed speed but a lack of refinement in rallying and US racing have been firmly buried by the performances he has shown since returning to the F1 grid with the Enstone-based team last season.
And arguably the Finn, who had just one year of ‘schooling’ at Sauber before eight years at the sharp end with McLaren then Ferrari, is now even better than his best.
In a relaxed environment, where he seems to have a natural fit, he has become Mr Consistent.
He has scored points in every race since last year’s Bahrain Grand Prix and will match Michael Schumacher’s record of 24 consecutive points-scoring races if he finishes in the top 10 in Canada this weekend.
He has firmly established himself as the Lotus team leader and helped to re-establish the team as a front-runner by taking two wins and 11 podiums in 26 races. He is currently second in the world championship, 21 points behind leader Sebastian Vettel.
Joining Lotus last year was a gamble, but it offered a route back into the sport for a man who didn’t really want to leave in the first place.
And now he has re-established his reputation, it’s opened the door to Red Bull, who are reported to have had talks with him about 2014.
But why are Red Bull looking and if an offer is genuinely on the table for Raikkonen, would it be the right way to go?
This season has delivered a telling change in driver line-ups thanks to Nico Rosberg’s performance against new Mercedes team-mate Lewis Hamilton. Hamilton was expected to dominate, but the fact that Rosberg has had the upper hand means what was anticipated to be a good driver line-up is in fact one of the strongest seen in F1 for years.
Top teams like McLaren, Ferrari and Red Bull need to respond to that – and none can currently claim to be at that level.
That puts Raikkonen, who is clearly in the upper tier, in a prime position – and there are two key reasons why he would want to leave Lotus: the first is the loss of Lotus’ key technical driving force James Allison and the second the fact that they are not a works team and have not even confirmed yet which manufacturer is going to supply them with a new turbo engine in 2014.
Raikkonen clearly burned his bridges at Ferrari, so McLaren or Red Bull are the two likely destinations - and Red Bull makes sense for so many reasons.
Firstly, he already proven he has the right marketability for Red Bull, having competed under their banner in rallying – and although the on-road element didn’t work that well, the off-road side seemed to suit.
Secondly, Red Bull technical chief Adrian Newey is well known for being quick to get on top of new rules packages, so in 2014, when there is radical change, his car should be the one to be in, especially as the team has a works engine deal with Renault.
Thirdly, at the age of 33 Raikkonen is at the acknowledged prime for a racing driver in terms of natural talent and peak performance. If he could go up against Vettel at any point, now is it.
But finally, and most importantly, it’s the long-term opportunity.
It’s no secret that Ferrari would love to lure Vettel away and that the German would entertain the thought of such a move. His contract with Red Bull currently extends to 2014. So if Vettel is plotting such a move, then Raikkonen would be sitting pretty to lead what is currently the top team on the grid.
Team boss Christian Horner has openly said: “Our objectives are very simple - we want the best two drivers in our cars."
And it’s hard to argue, currently, that Raikkonen is not one of the best...
- Motor Racing
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- Kimi Raikkonen
- Sebastian Vettel