Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Kimi's New Challenge

Kimi Raikkonen. It even sounds like a rally driver's name. Or perhaps, more accurately, it merely sounds Finnish. The 30 year old one-time Formula One World Championship has become far and away the most high-profile racing driver to switch to the world of rallying. Yes, many racing drivers have had a go at rallying, and some have even proven very quick, but far fewer have made the switch full-time, in the way that Raikkonen has.

And in recent years, about the only single-seater racer to go rallying in a serious way was Frenchman Stephane Sarrazin. Sarrazin did enter a couple of Grands Prix for Minardi in the late 1990s, but could hardly be considered to be a 'name driver' in the way that Raikkonen is. Sarrazin didn't do too badly, either, at least when he competed on tarmac, picking up a best result of 4th in a works Subaru. He was, on the other hand, rather more adept on tarmac than he ever proved to be on gravel or snow and appears to have returned full-time to circuit racing in recent years with the Peugeot sportscar team.

So if Raikkonen were to really establish himself as a front-runner in the World Rally Championship, would he be the first man to establish a serious career both on the circuits and on the special stages? Well, not exactly. Sebastien Loeb has looked reasonably adept in his intermittent outings in sportscars, but he was hardly the first rally driver to switch to circuit racing. Back in the late 1980s, when long-time Audi man and two time world champion found his employer, Audi, were more interested in racing GTO sportscars in the States that taking on Lancia and Toyota in the comparatively tame Group A category, he switched with them, with considerable success.

You have to go further back to find a driver who scored points in both Formula 1 and the World Rally Championship, back to the late 1960s, when all-rounder Vic Elford won the 1968 Monte Carlo Rally and scoring a career best finish of 4th in what was his first F1 race, the French Grand Prix of that year. He won the Daytona 24 Hours that year and would meet with considerable success in sportscar racing at a time when the World Sportscar Championship was a genuine rival to Formula 1.

Go much further back, though, and the distinction between race and rally driver becomes rather hazier. What exactly were the great Italian road races? Was the Targa Florio a race or a rally? And what of the Mille Miglia, which was won by F1 great, Stirling Moss? A race or a rally? He used pace notes and had a co-driver, so, despite the fact that the vehicle they used, the Mercedes 300SLR, was much closer to an F1 car than anything which you might use on a forest stage, it was perhaps more of a rally than a race. Go back a couple of decades further and the distinction becomes all but irrelevant. Stage rallying hadn't yet been invented, but the evocative black and white photographs of Grands Prix of the 1920s and 30s show that many of the road circuits of the era more more resemblance to special stages than to the antiseptic cleanliness of modern F1 tracks. Indeed, there's probably more gravel on some of those circuits than on the asphalt stages of the Rallye Catalunya. In that sense, if Kimi Raikkonen does make a successful transition from F1 to the WRC, he won't so much be the first driver to do it, as merely the first driver to do it in quite some time.

So what are his chances? When he entered the 1000 Lakes Rally in Finland last year in an S2000 Fiat Punto, he put in a very respectable performance, prior to eventually exiting the event in a crash, but then the S2000 machinery is generally considered not to be as difficult to drive as the more powerful WRC Citroen that Raikkonen will be driving next year. And furthermore, it has to be said that the quality of the opposition in the S2000 class in that event was hard to assess. The only man in identical machinery was Anton Alen, who while competent enough, is hardly a star in the way that his Dad was. So it's not easy to know how much can be read into Kimi's ability to get really quite close to his stage times.

In a Citroen C4 WRC, essentially the same machine that Sebastien Loeb won the world title in this year, there will be no hiding place. He has, however, always struck me as a driver who succeeded primarilt because, even in comparison with other racing drivers, he has almost supernatural car control. He doesn't appear to be a man who needs to think his way to driving quickly - if he did, then given that he was not one for spending endless hours poring over data traces, he would probably never have been as successful as he was in F1. As such, his skills might translate more easily to the rally world than would some other Grand Prix drivers. After all, F1 drivers have varied enormously in their ability to cope with the transition to the special stage. Jim Clark was startlingly quick in a Lotus Cortina rally car, fellow Lotus F1 man Graham Hill, on the other hand, never really looked at home in it.

I hope he succeeds, and I'd love to see him give it a few years to really hone his talents. I can't help but think that the rally world selects its drivers from a far shallower, and muddier, pool of talent. There's no equivalent in the rallying world of the extensive junior formula network through which today's leading F1 drivers emerge. And away from the two full works teams, many of those in the quickest equipment (the Citroen junior cars and the Stobart and Munchis Fords) are there because they can raise cash, or have connections, rather than because they are particularly quick. There's something a little depressing about the fact that Conrad Rautenbach and Matthew Wilson have regular full-time drives, while Guy Wilkes, Jan Kopecky and Per-Gunnar Andersen do not. Having an F1 driver after a new challenge throwing a cat among the pigeons can only be a good thing. And if it brings some publicity to a beleaguered and struggling World Championship, so much the better.

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