Raikkonen: F1 or WRC?

By on Thursday, October 27, 2011

(By Mar Garcia)

Kimi has a tough decision to make...

During the last few weeks, the rumours about a possible return of Kimi Räikkönen to F1 have intensified and almost all the F1 pundits have delighted us with their opinion about it. Some of them think that would be good news, some of them not. Some of them think it could be a successful move for the “Iceman”, some of them don’t. Oh well…

But Räikkönen is a rally driver, at least at the moment. Why not speculate a bit about this story from the rallying point of view as well? Since it seemed to me that it could be fun, I decided to play a little game: I have tried to imagine myself in Mr Räikkönen’s shoes and consider if it would be worth it to continue rallying or if it would be better to go back to F1. Of course, chances that the conclusions I reach are somehow close to whatever Mr Räikkönen might think are negligible, among other things, because I am not cool and because it scares me to death just the thought of sitting in a WRCar.

I suppose, the most logical way to start playing this game would be to analyze how Räikkönen’s rallying career has been so far. Kimi is a champion and, if I were a champion, I would want to win. We already know that, given the right car, Kimi can win in F1, but can Kimi win in the WRC?

A few facts: Kimi Räikkönen has taken part in a handful of minor rallies and 20 WRC rallies (21 if we consider Rally Spain 2010 where he could not start due to an accident during shakedown). In other words, if we consider his experience, Kimi Räikkönen is a junior level rally driver. His best result so far has been a 5th place in Turkey 2010 and, at the moment, he is a consistent championship points’ scorer when he is not affected by big dramas (like last week’s engine problem).

Kimi Raikkonen at the Rally Catalunya in Spain

If we look into some of the F1 media, Kimi is considered to be a very crash-happy rally driver but, so far this season, Kimi has only retired from one rally because of a crash, and it did not even happen during a special stage: Kimi managed to crash with Henning Solberg in a road section between stages during Rally France. As expected, Kimi and Henning do not agree about how and why this accident could happen, but when do people agree when they crash? If we compare Räikkönen’s crash record with, for example, Ott Tänak’s or Neuville’s (two of the most promising young drivers out there), we find that Kimi is quite a safe driver. Even shooting star Sébastien Ogier has already crashed from the lead 3 times this season, not to talk about Novikov. In other words, Kimi seems to be quite capable to keep that car on the road if we take into consideration how little rallying experience he has.

And what about his pace? We used to watch Räikkönen driving F1 cars extremely fast. The number of fast laps he managed during his 9 years F1 career is quite remarkable. And we all have read some of the F1 press telling us what a snail Kimi is when he rallies but, is he? Well, at the moment, Kimi is not fast enough to win rallies or fight for the championship the way he used to do in F1, but he is a junior. Maybe the right question would be: will he ever be fast enough to win WRC championships? I can only answer: I have no clue. If we take a deep look into Kimi’s pace difference to the top guys, we find there is a strong dependence on the surface the rally takes place on. The more sealed a surface is, the faster our flying Finn is: already last season, Kimi did some of the fastest split times of all drivers during Rally Bulgaria (tarmac), but he struggles on mud and very loose gravel. Nevertheless, the gap to the top guys has been clearly decreasing as he gathers experience: Räikkönen started his rallying career being as far as 2 seconds per kilometre off the pace on gravel, but it reduced to just a few tenths of a second in Finland this season, where he was even able to match ex-world champion Petter Solberg at times. Moreover, we have recently got to know that Kimi has comfortably beaten Sébastien Loeb and Sébastien Ogier in the in-season tests, because Kimi can memorize the stages. In other words, Kimi has the raw pace, by far. It is the experience with the sport and the pace notes what is still missing. Given enough time, it is possible Räikkönen could be fighting with the “big guys”. It is not 100% sure, but it is possible.

In summary: Räikkönen knows how to keep a rally car on the road, his pace is improving and the tests hint he could be one of the fastest drivers in the championship in the future. But, is it worth it for him to perseverate?

Well, WRC has definitely some pros. If he manages to win the WRC championship, he will turn into a driving legend; that must be a pro, for sure. And what is more important: the journalists are much nicer than the F1 ones, the landscapes are beautiful and changing, and, let’s be realistic, rally people are simply lovely.

Kimi at the ADAC Rallye Germany, his last successful rally

Sadly, WRC also has several cons. There is no wheel-to-wheel racing, cars do not reach the 300 kph and the number of factory seats is so reduced that Kimi has no chance of getting one; he is simply not good enough at the moment. Maybe in the future he will, but not right now. That means he has to pay to drive from his own pocket or helped by sponsors. Why pay to drive if he has the chance of doing good money somewhere else? Kimi is still young, why should he not seize the opportunity of increasing in a few more million his bank account while having fun driving fast cars? I, definitively, like to get paid for my work, but then, I do need to get paid if I want to pay the rent. Maybe Mr Räikkönen sees it in a different way.

Another con: in WRC, we are the best when it comes to shooting ourselves in the foot. Not too long ago, just before Rally Finland, Olivier Quesnel (Citroën Racing boss) had nothing better to do than telling the most important motorsport magazine of the world that Kimi has disappointed the team as a driver. Of course, such a statement made it to the front page of that magazine’s webpage (with big headlines, of course) and to several of their articles in their print edition ever since. Well, team bosses have the right to criticise their drivers, haven’t they? Where is the problem then? Quite simple, first of all, Quesnel statements are debatable. Second, Mr Räikkönen is not one of Mr Quesnel’s drivers; he is one of his customers. In other words, Räikkönen is paying several million euros a year (from his own pocket, according to several sources) to the company Quesnel works for, in order to have a car and not to be publicly bashed and trashed by somebody whose team management is, looking to what has been going on in the first team all this season long, questionable. What happened to “the customer is always right” policy? Now it has changed to “pay me a lot of money and I will bash you and frighten away any possible future sponsors you might have been thinking about”? Or is it like this just when the customer is Mr Räikkönen? I have never heard Mr Quesnel talking like that about Petter Solberg or the van Merksteijns, and the van Merksteijns are, by far, much slower than Kimi. Had I been Mr Räikkönen, I would have just packed my luggage, asked Citroën for my money back and headed to another series where, if I were to be publicly bashed by my team, at least I got paid for it. But then, Mr Räikkönen seems to be able to keep a much cooler head than me and/or really loves this sport.

Kimi: The sixth world champion on the F1 grid?

It does not matter how long I try to decide what I would do if I were in Räikkönen’s shoes, I simply cannot make up my mind. The chance, even if small, of being the first ever driver to win, both, the F1 and Rallying World Championships must be appealing. But, is it enough? I just hope, for his own sake, that when he writes his own lists of pros and cons of WRC, one of the lists is much longer than the other and his decision is easy to make. And, of course, that whatever he decides becomes reality.

The WRC fan in me would love to keep watching him drifting through the stages. His driving style is nice for the spectators on the side roads to see, and any driver more on those stages is always a gain for a championship struggling to survive.

But the motorsport fan in me does not really care if what Räikkönen is driving next year is an F1 car, a WRCar, a truck, a stockcar, a snowmobile, a boat in gorilla suits or a tractor, as far as he drives something. It is always a pleasure to watch top drivers putting the pedal to the metal. And of course, six world champions in a F1 grid...

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