Raikkonen targets Monaco double

Kimi Raikkonen is pinning his hopes of launching a belated assault on this year’s drivers’ world championship on securing a second emotional triumph on the world’s most-famous street circuit in Sunday’s Monaco Grand Prix.

The 26-year-old Finn, once widely expected to be the greatest danger to Fernando Alonso’s defence of his world crown this year, has endured a near-disastrous start to the 2006 season.

As Renault and Ferrari, in the shape of title-holding Spaniard Alonso and seven-time champion Michael Schumacher of Germany, have dominated the early races, Raikkonen and his McLaren-Mercedes team have been left gasping in their wake.

After six races, the one-time “baby-faced assassin” of Formula One needs urgently to restore some pride for the Woking-based team that once reigned supreme in the Mediterranean principality.

In the halcyon days of the outfit’s great era from 1984 to 1993, with Frenchman Alain Prost and Brazilian Ayrton Senna, a McLaren car won eight times in nine years.

But, since then, there have been only four McLaren wins in 12 races—the last delivered a year ago by Raikkonen. And the team with arguably the glossiest-looking car on the grid badly needs to add some lustre to its record.

The last race, the Spanish Grand Prix at Barcelona just 10 days ago, witnessed Raikkonen’s most dismal performance of the year. He finished fifth, more than a minute behind the victorious Alonso, after battling to overcome a car lacking in aerodynamic abilities.

The points were valuable, however, and Raikkonen has now collected 27 this year, half the number of Alonso, who has 54.
It is a daunting challenge to close the gap, but Raikkonen is not lacking in belief or courage.

That will be proved again at the weekend when he believes his combination of talents allied to the strengths, rather than the weaknesses of his car, will give him another opportunity to shine on the narrow, twisting and treacherous streets around the harbour.

Raikkonen said: “Monte Carlo is a completely different challenge to the Barcelona track and I think we will be pushing hard for victory. The barriers are so close and you need to be precise, so the handling of the car and the mechanical grip are more important than other areas, such as ‘aero’ efficiency.”

As always, there is a sub-plot. McLaren have recruited Alonso already for 2007, leaving both Raikkonen and his teammate, Colombian Juan-Pablo Montoya—who could also be a contender to win again as he did for Williams in 2003—to ponder their options.

A win by either man may persuade McLaren to consider offering him a new contract.

Raikkonen, the most-wanted driver of the moment, is likely to be considering attractive offers also from defending constructors’ world champions Renault and Ferrari, the only team with as much glamour as the Monaco Grand Prix.

Discussions, or at least approaches, about switching camps next year are likely to take place in the seaside paddock when it throngs with team owners and their major sponsors on Saturday and Sunday.

For Raikkonen to win, however, he must stop Alonso winning in Monte Carlo for the first time. The Spaniard believes only an excellent performance in qualifying can bring him his 12th career win to follow his emotional 11th, and first on Spanish soil, at the Circuit de Catalunya.

“It’s all about qualifying,” said Alonso. “We will set the car up more for qualifying than for the race. It’s the only place we do that. I think everybody will be a little worried about qualifying. In Monaco, you normally have a lot of traffic in every session and this year qualifying will be very tough.

“I think the first 15 minutes will be hardest because one yellow flag, or if the guy in front has problems, then you could be out. For sure, we will have a different strategy to make sure we get into the top ten.”

Schumacher, seeking to equal another one of Formula One’s greatest records by winning the Monaco race for a sixth time, is less worried about qualifying on the front row than Alonso.

As he bids to emulate Senna’s record of six wins—including five in succession from 1989 to 1993—Schumacher will aim to ensure he is in a leading grid position with a chance of using clever strategy to claim the glory.

“Lots of people think that qualifying could signal the outcome of the race, but I don’t think so,” he said. “Of course, it would be a disadvantage to be too far back on the grid and, of course, you can’t afford to leave a big gap to the leader.

“But there’s a lot you can achieve by having the right strategy if you’re not on pole. I think that, absolutely, there are chances of winning from positions three, four or five ...”

Neutrals will hope that Schumacher is right as he attempts to gain his first Monaco win in five attempts since 2001 and that the race is not reduced, as so often, to a glorious, but ultimately predictable, procession in the sunshine.—AFP

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