Fast and Finnish
Kimi Raikkonen appears a little underdressed when he is not wearing his new McLaren MP4-19. In mufti he is about as exciting as a drizzle-damp Woking afternoon.
Quiet and shy, he looks down while he mumbles his answers, monosyllabically, to questions about the approaching formula-one season.
Away from the track this gifted sports star can appear to be travelling incognito, though the helicopter is a bit of a giveaway.
Despite his bashfulness, he and his model girlfriend Jenni Dahlman are considered the Posh and Becks of Finland. According to BusinessF1 magazine, Raikkonen may earn £80-million over five years with McLaren. A championship, or a bid from Ferrari, could push that figure through the roof.
He is made of ice, according to his team principal Ron Dennis. But there is something enticing about ice, especially when there is a decent gin and tonic at hand. Raikkonen’s chilly charms are a little more expensive to sample. It took a cool £13-million for Dennis to prise the young Finn away from his contract with Sauber at the end of the 2001 season.
The words might not come easily, but this is the man most likely to break Michael Schumacher’s unbroken run of four world championships for Ferrari when the new season gets under way in Melbourne.
‘I wouldn’t be put off by him being an introvert,” says Stirling Moss, whose personality is a tad more ebullient. ‘Jim Clark was very quiet and he just happened to be one of the finest drivers there ever was.
‘The great thing about Kimi is that he’s very fast, naturally, effortlessly quick. You can’t really teach that.”
According to a fellow interrogator, his reticence is ‘a Finnish thing. They’re all a bit like that. Mika Hakkinen wasn’t a bundle of laughs either.”
But that is not strictly true. Remember Keke Rosberg, the champion of 1982.
‘I’m a cocky bastard,” he would say, his fat cigar set at a jaunty angle, often wearing dark glasses and his favourite Hard Rock Café jacket. Rosberg loved to say that each patch on his overalls represented a house.
But there seems to be a Finnish thing when it comes to driving, a precocity in speed and control, and no one admires this more than Dennis, for whom Raikkonen might be an adopted son. He brakes that bit later than the others and hits the accelerator a split-second faster. In these nano-seconds, races and championships are won and lost.
‘I am learning with every test and every race and every mile,” he says. ‘I think I have more speed and self-confidence after last year. I’m more mature.”
A cynic might suggest that Raikkonen would have a little more to say if he had made more winner’s speeches. After all, he has made 50 grand prix starts since his debut in Melbourne three years ago and has won only once.
In 2001 he showed outstanding promise with Sauber. With McLaren in 2002 the impetus of his progress was maintained and he finished sixth with 24 points.
Last year he emerged as the most likely successor to Schumacher. He had his maiden victory in Malaysia and finished second to the German overall, beaten by only two points.
‘It was disappointing not to win,” he says, ‘but we were in a good position most of the year despite some problems in mid-season. Overall it was a good season.”
He is worried about the new car.
‘We still have problems and time is running out,” he says. ‘Not big problems, just little ones, but they take a long time to fix. We didn’t have a very good test in Barcelona, but the week before, in Valencia, the car was running very well. But the base line is very good. It’s very stable.”
There is speculation that Raikkonen may have his feathers ruffled by the arrival of Montoya next year. It could spell the end of his dominance.
‘I don’t care who my teammate is,” he says with a shrug. ‘I’ve talked to him a few times, like any other driver.”
The Finn says he is happy with McLaren. But there are still rumours that he could move to Ferrari or Williams.
So, does he feel sorry for his colleague David Coulthard, who may be without a drive at the end of the season?
‘Why should I? That’s nothing to do with me. I had some bad races last year; he had some bad races too, maybe more.”
Like Fernando Alonso, he is a natural; highly competitive and effortlessly skilled at anything he attempts. At 10 he was an outstanding ice hockey player (‘the early-morning practices put me off”) and he is nonchalant and natural on the ski slopes. He loves jet skis, too, and paragliding fascinates him.
Physically he looks most ordinary. But the neck muscles and Popeye forearms bulge unusually for a 24-year-old. Is he quicker than Schumacher?
‘So much depends on the car,” he says.
‘But winning the championship takes all the bullshit out of it. Now, it’s important to win the title many times to be called a great driver. But that first title is the most important of all.” —