In month's time, Kimi Raikkonen will be making his race debut in NASCAR's Truck Series, a move that took the motorsport community by surprise. But will the Finn be able to succeed where others failed? Diego Mejia analyses the former F1 world champion's prospects
"We need all the talent we can get, it helps us broaden our fan base so we're excited about it," says Rick Hendrick.
"I think it's interesting to hear that he wants to make that step, he's obviously a very talented race driver and the chance to team up with Kyle Busch is exciting. We need more stars like that in our sport," says Roger Penske.
Nearly five years after NASCAR was taken aback with the news that Formula 1 star Juan Pablo Montoya was committing to a future in the Sprint Cup series, the racing community was surprised to learn that world champion Kimi Raikkonen is set to try his hand at America's most popular form of motor racing.
It was news worldwide, but in NASCAR circles, reports were taken initially with certain scepticism, but as AUTOSPORT was able to learn first, the Finn's plans were well underway and less than a week before the news broke in Finland, a test was already set for Raikkonen with Toyota's top outfit in the Camping World Truck Series, Kyle Busch Motorsport.
"I can't wait for him to come in [the media center] and do an interview because the one-word answers that you guys are going to get out of those questions is going to be hilarious to watch. I might come in here for that first session!" joked four-time Sprint Cup champion Jeff Gordon when asked at Martinsville about Raikkonen's arrival in NASCAR.
"I think it says a lot about NASCAR that somebody like him is considering coming here. I admire him for wanting to take the step to go Truck racing and not just jump into a Cup car. Obviously the word is out there to the best drivers in the world [that] if you think you're just going to come in here and jump in a Cup car and be competitive, you're kidding yourself," Gordon added.
"I'm excited to see how he takes to the sport," said Dale Earnhardt Jr, NASCAR's most popular driver. "It would be kind of neat if Mr. Schumacher would come over here and give it a try... So it's kind of neat to see some of those guys have an interest in our sport because there is definitely such a big difference between the two."
Although we'll probably never get to see "Mr. Schumacher" driving a stock car, it is indeed very good news for NASCAR to have yet another international star deciding to give it a go with the good ol' boys, Raikkonen being the second world champion to do so in the last few years.
Recapping, there have been several after Montoya attempting to make the move. 1997 Formula 1 world champion Jacques Villeneuve has tried it in since 2007, then came Scott Speed, Narain Karthikeyan and Nelson Piquet, without mentioning those trying the move from IndyCar, like champions Sam Hornish Jr and Dario Franchitti, and even Paul Tracy well before them.
Out of those, only Piquet has a full-time seat at the moment, driving for Sprint Cup star Kevin Harvick in the Truck series and perhaps AJ Allmendinger is the other exception, him having committed to NASCAR since 2006, currently racing in Cup for Richard Petty Motorsports.
Certainly there have been more stories of failure than success in those trying to make the transition, but Raikkonen is perceived obviously to be in another league altogether.
"I think when you're a talent like that, and again I'll compare him to Juan Pablo, I know they're a little bit different styles, but I'll compare them in the fact that they both have a tremendous amount of talent and a lot of racing experience," says Jeff Gordon.
"There's not a whole lot you can tell them because they know how to get into different race cars and adapt. But I will say that this is one type of series and vehicles that I think are far more challenging than people realise, especially when you've come out of high-downforce cars."
Raikkonen had a two-day test behind closed doors at Gresham Motorsports Park, a half-mile oval with low banking where Kyle Busch and him set identical laptimes, according to the NASCAR star, somthing that could well be the Finn's equivalent in the stock car world in terms of talent.
Raikkonen's technique impressed just as much as his speed and he was able to learn some of the truck's reactions to different set-up adjustments, placing all that knowledge in his own data recorder.
"He is very methodical with his acceleration, braking and steering and there is no doubt that he has a good feel for a race vehicle," says Rick Ren, general manager for Kyle Busch Motorsports about Raikkonen.
"We threw a lot at him over the two days. We made a lot of chassis changes to both the front and rear. Shock adjustments, air pressure adjustments and track-bar adjustments, so he could get a good feel for how these affect the handling of the truck.
"For being unfamiliar with a truck and unfamiliar with the track, he did an outstanding job. We made both race runs and qualifying runs and there is no doubt that making the truck go fast will not be a problem."
During the same week Raikkonen also tested at Rockingham, a one-mile track with steeper banking, once again impressing by going faster than the team expected.
Steve Hallam, Executive Vice President for competition for Michael Waltrip Racing, was a McLaren man when Raikkonen joined the Woking outfit in 2002 and was still there when the Finn left to drive for Ferrari.
A former race engineer, who worked closely with Mika Hakkinen before moving up the McLaren ladder, is looking forward to see Kimi making the move to NASCAR and believes his World Rally Championship experience will only make him more suitable for a smoother transition that other former open-wheel drivers.
"There is no doubt that his rally experience - driving on low grip surfaces and what have you will help him much more than someone coming into the sport from a high downforce arena or where the cars generate a lot of grip," says Hallam. "Our cars don't have a huge amount of grip and it degrades very quickly as the tyres fade during the run. I think he will be well suited for this."
Since Raikkonen left Formula 1 we haven't had the chance to see him compete in anything different than a rally car. Following his unfortunate incident in the Ronde di Andore last February, Robert Kubica said that rallying made him better and allowed him to improve his skills in certain areas.
For sure Raikkonen must be in a way a superior driver these days to who he was when he left F1. He hasn't just been racing some rally cars, but measuring himself against the best in the sport, including seven-time WRC champion Sebastian Loeb.
But one thing Raikkonen hasn't been doing lately is racing wheel-to-wheel as his main rival has been a stopwatch since he left Formula 1. His race-craft and the competitive edge evidenced many times, like in his last lap pass on Giancarlo Fisichella for victory in the 2004 Japanese Grand Prix, that should still be in him.
However, when he hits the track for his NASCAR debut and his first oval race at Charlotte on May 20, he will be among a 36-truck field featuring some young hopefuls but also a number current and former Cup drivers, plus other veterans who know all there is to know about the track, racing lines, the aero effects of racing close to others, handling, adjustments or what have you.
Also, different to his F1 and WRC experience, Raikkonen won't have any telemetry readings during his first race weekend. Data acquisition is allowed in tests but not in race meetings and he will have be the one saying what the truck is doing and what he needs it to do handling-wise. Although for someone of his experience and talent this shouldn't pose a major hurdle, stock cars have their very own nuances and inevitably there will be a learning curve for him on that front.
"He'll have to be able to communicate very quickly and precisely and that's what makes it difficult for some drivers coming over [to NASCAR]," says Hallam. "They are feeling different things to what they're used to and they have to learn how to translate them into a medium where the engineers can understand what the car is doing and what the car needs to go better.
"The absence of data certainly in the race weekends makes things difficult but If he's in a team where he's got good team-mates and a very strong technical group, then there would be no problem, I'm sure."
Montoya, Raikkonen's team-mate at McLaren in 2005 and part of 2006, agrees with Hallam in that driving for a top team in the Truck series and having Kyle Busch as a team-mate initially will make the lack of data easier to overcome, while he tips the Finn to succeed in his transition.
"The trucks don't have as much power as a Cup car and he's driving one of the best trucks, for one of the best teams," says Montoya. "They must have some very good information and data that can help him. He should be good. It may be a little hard for him at the beginning but he should be getting plenty of help from his team.
"...He has a lot of talent. It will be interesting to see when he gets to a big track, because you have to be a little more patient, but I think he will be fine. He is pretty good. If anybody can do it, it's him."
Kyle Busch has placed the bar not to high for Raikkonen's debut, expecting a top-15 finish as a successful entry into the sport. Charlotte, known as the 'Best of the Southeast', may not be the easiest track for a first race, although back in 2007 Jacques Villeneuve made his NASCAR debut in a truck race at Las Vegas, a similar layout in terms of its characteristics. He finished 21st, a lap down, while his Bill Davis Racing team-mate Johnny Benson Jr finished second. Different to Talladega or the current Daytona, handling and making the right set-up adjustments are key to performance at Charlotte.
What happens after Raikkonen's NASCAR debut is still up in the air. He may do another two to four truck races, there may be some Nationwide series outings, and even a Cup debut could eventually come sooner than many expect. His people have already had contact with some Cup teams and it wouldn't either be surprising to see a McLaren reunion at Michael Waltrip Racing, where besides Hallam, he would meet with former McLaren Chief Designer Mike Coughlan, currently working as Director of Vehicle Design.
It is still early to know if Raikkonen will make a full transition, leave the WRC behind, and move to the US to immerse himself in a completely new environment, slightly more laid-back in a way - just like him - but probably a lot more hectic than he has with his current schedule. When Montoya signed with Ganassi he was committing himself to it full-time, while Raikkonen is, for now, just testing the waters, getting his feet wet to see whether he dives in or not.
"He's very much his own person, he's very independently minded," says Hallam of Raikkonen's persona. "If he has made the decision that he wants to do come into this arena of motorsports I'm sure he would have thought through some of this issues, given them his consideration and make his own decisions.
"It is a more open environment here compared to Formula 1. I have no idea how it is in the World Rally Championship scene because I've never experienced it, only on TV. Each discipline has its own requirements. I'm sure he would have given them due consideration."
Piquet, also a former rival of Raikkonen in Formula 1, competed in a number of ARCA, Truck and Nationwide Series races last year before entering this season on a full-time basis. He expects the Finn to enjoy his NASCAR experience.
"I think Kimi's only going to start realizing how fun and how good this is after he does a few races," says the Brazilian. "It's a whole different world, a different country, mainly ovals, heavy stock cars. I think anybody in Europe would like to try it but moving here and committing yourself to it is a completely different story."
Raikkonen and his group may review their plans after his first Truck race, but all signs point at him making a very quick transition. For now he is bringing some sponsors to fund his stock car foray though his ICE 1 Racing outfit but the doors of NASCAR are already open to him.
He has the right team to be able to quickly stamp a good first impression, and things should evolve naturally from there on, counting on his people managing to close the right deals for him moving forward, but only if NASCAR is where Raikkonen really wants to let the roots grow.
What happens with his career from late May onwards will be fascinating to see.