Mar.9 (Reuters) 2007 world champion Kimi Raikkonen, by his own team’s admission, has never been a conversationalist and his comeback F1 season is unlikely to turn him into one, but he is fired up to make the most of what appears to be a very good car at his disposal for his return to the top tier of the sport.
“Animated – a word that has not frequently been used to describe Kimi’s appearances in press conferences, interviews, etc,” Lotus declare in their A to Z factsheet on their Finnish ‘Iceman’.
The list on the former Renault team’s website concludes with “ZZZZZZZZ – at his first race at Melbourne in 2001, Kimi surprised all by being cool enough to have a nap half-an-hour before going to the grid.”
The 2007 world champion is unlikely to be heard pontificating about his comeback on the Melbourne starting grid when he starts his first race since he left Ferrari at the end of 2009, and his fans would not want it any other way.
While the 32-year-old former Sauber, McLaren and Ferrari driver’s return has generated plenty of pre-season chatter, he is a man who has always preferred to do his talking on the track.
Raikkonen’s departure to rallying for two years left F1 without one of its favourites and his return gives the glamour sport six of the best on the starting grid – an unprecedented six champions on track together.
His motives have been analysed, and he has had to dismiss suggestions that he has a stake in the Proton-backed team or needs the money.
What remains indisputable is the Finn’s enduring popularity and his bravery, as anyone who saw him speed through a cloud of smoke at his favourite Spa circuit in 2002 without even momentarily lifting off will testify.
His party-loving lifestyle away from the track, and adventures on snowmobiles and speedboats in gorilla suits under the alias of ‘James Hunt’ have only added to the legend.
Just how quick the Lotus is, with pre-season testing an unreliable indicator, remains to be seen but the signs are promising even if bookmakers William Hill have Raikkonen only as 25/1 sixth favourite for the title.
Only Michael Schumacher, who began his comeback with Mercedes in 2010 and is now 43 years old, has worse odds among the champions.
Schumacher had three seasons out of cars altogether while Raikkonen, winner of 18 grands prix with McLaren and Ferrari, has kept himself fit in the world rally championship and NASCAR.
He has looked comfortable in the cockpit from the first day he stepped into the black-and-gold Lotus E20, setting the fastest lap time on the opening day of pre-season testing at Jerez in early February.
“The good thing is that the car was good from day one out of the box. The car itself has been very well designed and it is clearly a step up over the past years,” team boss Eric Boullier said after the final test in Barcelona.
“Of course, the fastest time at the end of the day looks good but no-one will know how fast any of the cars are until we get to qualifying at Albert Park,” cautioned Raikkonen.
“All the changes we have made over testing have been improving the car, so we’ll have to see what happens in Melbourne…I’m feeling positive.”
Raikkonen’s signing, while great for the team’s profile and morale at the Enstone factory, was met with some media scepticism about his hunger and motivation.
The Finn, maybe unfairly, had sometimes given the impression in his final season with Ferrari that he would rather be elsewhere.
“I have never had issues with that,” he growled at the presentation of the E20 car when the motivation questions reared up again.
“I don’t expect to be much different. The racing is going to be slightly different but all the other things are more or less the same.”
Boullier had no doubts about his driver; “Regarding the motivation, only one word – Yes. He has it. No worries,” he said.