End of the ice age: Kimi Raikkonen on 20 years in F1
Kimi has spent the past two decades as a polarising figure in F1. How does the famously cool newly retired Finn look back on his career? We found out
It’s not an auspicious start. Autocar has been granted a 10-minute one on one with Kimi Räikkönen via Zoom during the weekend of the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, the 2007 world champion’s 349th and last Formula 1 race. So our first question, naturally, is whether he’s feeling any emotion.
“No, not really,” he answers with a shrug. “It’s like any other race, really.”
Really, what were we expecting? In its brevity and unflinching honesty, that answer encapsulates why the 42-year-old Finn was such a divisive character for much of his Formula 1 career. While his stone-faced lack of emotion infuriated many, to others his air of indifference in an era of media-trained sheen made him a cult hero – one to whom the ‘Iceman’ nickname was thoroughly suited.
His on-track legacy is just as divisive. His incredible speed isn’t in question, as one title, 21 wins and 103 podiums prove. Yet he also looked totally indifferent and disinterested at times, to the extent that two years after he won his title, Ferrari paid him a reported £20 million not to race in 2010. So how do you really evaluate Räikkönen’s F1 career?
The sense is that the Räikkönen we’ve seen in the F1 paddock for the past two decades wasn’t the real one. In paying tribute to him, both Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel commented on how different he was off-duty, as tales of drunken antics with inflatable dolphins and entering snowmobile races under the pseudonym James Hunt attest.
So was Räikkönen really that monosyllabic or was he playing a caricature of himself? Either way, it’s clear that he tolerated rather than enjoyed the circus surrounding modern grand prix racing – and unlike some of his contemporaries, he didn’t try to hide that. And if he hates the off-track requirements of being an F1 driver as much as he seems to, he must really love racing F1 cars.
“I enjoy the racing part, yeah, and that’s really the only thing,” he says. “I think every driver in F1 is here because of the driving and the racing and not the other stuff. But obviously in any sport, there are lots of things to do other than just the sport itself. It has always been a part of F1 and somethingI’ve had to do. It is what it is.”
Does he still get a thrill from driving an F1 car after 20 years? “Some days are better than others,” he admits. “When you’re doing a lot of testing, it can be far from fun: you’re there from nine in the morning until six in the evening going round the same track.
“But in normal life, some days are better than others: some days you wake up and know it’s not going to be a good day. It kind of works the same way in F1.
“Obviously, you have to try to make a good result whenever you’re in the car. And as a team, everybody is happier the better you go.”
See? Ask the right question in the right forum and Räikkönen is capable of giving at least a reasonably considered – and refreshingly honest – answer. Besides, he enjoyed a 20-year F1 career thanks to his speed, not his soundbites.
That speed was on display from the moment Räikkönen set foot in a kart and was proven when he won the 2000 Formula Renault UK title with seven wins from 10 races in his maiden season of car racing. That earned an F1 test with Sauber, and such was his raw pace that the team signed him for 2001, aged just 21 and with only 23 car races to his name.
There was considerable opposition to that decision, not least from motorsport’s governing body. But while others argued about him, Räikkönen was unfazed. He responded by finishing sixth on his debut in Australia. Reports suggest that he was asleep 30 minutes before the race and had to be woken by his team to not miss the start.
His impressive form in the Ferrari-powered Sauber led to him being touted as the successor to Michael Schumacher at Ferrari. Instead, he signed with McLaren-Mercedes for 2002, replacing double world champion Mika Häkkinen.
While he showed incredible pace at times (in 2005, he took seven wins and finished second in the points), Räikkönen never had a title-winning machine and wasn’t really labelled as Häkkinen’s heir. But in 2007, he finally went to Ferrari to succeed Schumacher – and promptly won the title in his first season in red.
Fittingly, even that year, he wasn’t the centre of attention. The headlines came from rival McLaren, with the explosive revelation that Woking was caught copying Maranello designs and the growing feud between Alonso and rookie team-mate Lewis Hamilton. Räikkönen simply kept his head downand calmly picked up the pieces. He seemed on the verge of greatness.
Instead, he never reached that high again. He was mystifyingly overshadowed by team-mate Felipe Massa in 2008 and then hamstrung by an uncompetitive car the following year. Ferrari decided he wasn’t the right man to succeed Schumacher, after all, and jettisoned him for Alonso in 2010.
That might well have been the end of Räikkönen’s F1 story. He spent two years indulging himself (and crashing a lot) in the World Rally Championship and seemed done with F1. But he couldn’t leave it alone. In 2012, he signed for Lotus and promptly returned the former (and future) Renault works team to the top step of the podium.
Amazingly, by 2013 he was back at Ferrari, although this time effectively as number two to his friend Vettel (who lobbied for the Finn). In a five- year stint, he was solid but rarely spectacular. There was a single win but far more middling performances. And in 2019, he again found himself being shuffled out for Ferrari’s next big thing, this time Charles Leclerc.
Räikkönen switched to Alfa Romeo – the current name for Sauber – and spent three years battling towards the back of the pack. He was undoubtedly well paid for doing so, but was he perhaps attracted by the romance of finishing his F1 career with the team he began it with? Of course not.
“Honestly, I chose Sauber purely because it’s close to my home [in Switzerland], so it cuts down on travelling when I need to be at the factory,” he says. “I can drive there in 40 minutes and I don’t need to fly. Before I would have to fly to different countries to drive the simulator or do anything with the team.” Räikkönen does note that “there are a lot of people still working there from when I started”, but is clear that “it was just the easiest and the best option for me”.
His 20-year career spanned three different generations of F1 engine, from the 3.0-litre V10 monsters to the 2.4-litre V8s and then the current 1.6-litre V6 turbo-hybrids. Just don’t expect him to pick a favourite.
“It doesn’t really make a difference,” he says. “The hybrids were very quiet compared with what we had before, but in how they drive and feel, they’re no different. The sound is the big issue, and actually I prefer it, as even with earplugs it was very noisy.” Likewise, he declines to pick a favourite car – but does say that “I’m lucky I had decent cars more often than bad ones”.
Räikkönen holds the record for the most F1 starts, with 349. It’s a notable achievement, particularly with a two-year break. But he says that “honestly, it doesn’t matter”. He adds: “Records like most races or most wins all get broken at some point. Maybe a few records will stay forever, but there’s always the best guy and then the next guy.
“When I started, there were 14 races or something [actually 17], so when you have 10 more races a year, you get there faster. I did that many races because I raced for that long, so it’s not like I will care when someone beats me to it.”
That’s just as well, considering that Alonso now has 333 starts and so should break the record this season. But while Alonso races for Alpine, what will Räikkönen be doing? Given that the last time he took a break from F1 he went rallying and tried Nascar, the possibilities seem endless.
“I was a lot younger then, and I had always wanted to try rallying,” he says. “I have zero plans. We will see what comes up: if there’s something interesting that makes sense, maybe I will do it. But right now I don’t want to make any big plans: I finally have freedom to choose and to do normal things with my family. I don't want to make plans to replace them."
With some drivers, you might not believe such a non-committal answer. From Räikkönen, it feels like honesty. He certainly won’t join the rotating rank of ex-driver TV pundits hovering around the paddock. His Alfa Romeo links might provide some options given the motorsport efforts of parent firm Stellantis, such as Peugeot’s Le Mans team. It could also present opportunities on the road car side: Räikkönen did some work on the Alfa Romeo Giulia GTAm, so might he be interested in car development?
“It would be interesting if you’re, let’s say, involved from the first day, as long as you would have enough say in it,” he says. “But there are so many things that need to be right to even think of that kind of thing. It’s like in F1: there’s a lot of people involved and there’s always going to be conflict at some point.”
Whatever Räikkönen does in the future, it won’t change the polarised views of him. Asked how he thinks he will be remembered, he says: “I’m happy I’ve done it the way I wanted to do, so how people will remember me honestly makes no difference to me. I know how it went for me, and I did at least most of it on my own terms.”
That seems to be a glimpse behind his façade. Very few drivers can truly say that they controlled their destiny during their time in F1, but Kimi can.
“It took a lot of conflict, to put it a nice way,” he laughs. “But it worked out in the long run. Some people like it, some don’t. But I’m not here to try to please people. I’m here to live as it’s right for me.”
*Raikkonen's finest drives*
*2018 United States Grand Prix *By 2018, it appeared that Räikkönen’s race-winning days were long over – but then he took a stunning, skilful win for Ferrari at the Circuit of the Americas, nursing his tyres to make a one-stop strategy work when all his rivals stopped twice. The crowd went wild.
*2003 Malaysian Grand Prix *This was a race of firsts for future champions, as Renault’s Fernando Alonso claimed his maiden pole position before McLaren’s Räikkönen overhauled his rival during the pit stops to secure his first F1 victory at the age of only 23.
*2012 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix* Räikkönen inherited the lead after Lewis Hamilton retired, then fended off a charge from Alonso to take the new Lotus team’s first win. The race also spawned an F1 catchphrase, after his team tried to radio him information and was met with: “Leave me alone, I know what I’m doing.”
*2009 Belgian Grand Prix *Ferrari struggled in 2009, but the F60 fared better at the fast Spa circuit. Räikkönen made a strong start, battling up to second, then overhauled Giancarlo Fisichella’s pace- setting Force India on the run to Les Combes. The Italian kept the pressure on, but Räikkönen resisted to take glory.
*2005 Japanese Grand Prix *Rain during the single-lap qualifying sessions meant Räikkönen started 17th at Suzuka, but he charged through the field with a series of stunning moves. He eventually tracked down and passed the leading Renault of Fisichella on the final lap to seal the win.