Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Raikkonen's Progress

Just a few days after Renault team principal Eric Boullier admitted that he had been approached by Kimi Raikkonen's management team regarding a seat with the team in 2011, the Finn took his first ever outright rally win last weekend. Now it was nothing to get too excited by - the Rallye Vosgien is an amateur affair, and anyone who knows roughly what he is doing shouldn't have too much trouble winning it if they have a works Citroen WRC at their disposal. But winning the event was, to be fair, not really the point. The rally was held in the countryside surrounding Strasbourg - the same part of the world in which the forthcoming Rallye France will take place. With the Citroen Junior Team having used up all 15 of its allotted test days for the year, this was the best way to provide the still inexperienced Raikkonen with some asphalt mileage ahead of the event.

After the best part of a year on the stages, though, how is Kimi's second career in rallying going? It all rather depends on what your expectations were. Some of the more excitable elements of the motorsports press seemed to think that he might be in the running for podiums on asphalt by the end of the year - and that is looking very unlikely. This, though, always struck me as something of a long shot. Rallying is really quite different to circuit racing, and but for a couple of outings in a Fiat Punto S2000 last year, the 2007 F1 World Champion had no real experience of the stages before this season. If David Coulthard and Ralf Schumacher have struggled adapting to DTM tin-tops, Raikkonen has faced an altogether tougher challenge. It's a little like the difference between a grass court specialist tennis player playing on clay, and a tennis pro being handed a badminton racket and trying to win the world title, if you will.

Let's not forget that Sebastien Loeb didn't find things any easier when he tried to go the other way. He might have looked impressive in testing for Toro Rosso and Red Bull a couple of years back, but it's always hard to know how much to read into testing times - a light fuel load and a new set of tyres can make any driver who knows roughly what they are doing look quick. When Loeb tested a GP2 car against the rest of the GP2 field last year (reportedly as a prelude to an aborted race debut with Toro Rosso at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix) he was last and two seconds off the pace. Not so slow as to be embarrassing, but equally, it was clear that he was no match for circuit drivers who have spent years doing nothing else. And if you were going to pick one rally driver out as having the kind of style that might translate to the circuit, it would be the ultra-precise Sebastien Loeb.

With his first points finish, for 8th, in Jordan, Raikkonen became only the second driver in history to score points in both the World Rally Championship and the Formula 1 World Championship. He's got a little way before he matches Carlos Reutemann's podium finish in a Peugeot 205 T16 on the 1985 Argentine Rally, but it's worth bearing in mind that the Argentine former F1 driver finished a whole half hour behind the winner. That said, had the World Rally Championship existed in the late 60s, all-rounder Vic Elford would have got in there first, he did win the Monte Carlo Rally in 1968 and scored a handful of F1 points finishes.

Both Raikkonen's points finishes and Reutemann's podium point to a fundamental difference between World Championship rallying and Formula 1. Aside from a few front runners, there is not typically the same strength in depth in a WRC event that there is at a Grand Prix. At the moment, there are perhaps as few as six really fast serious professionals competing full time in the WRC: Sebastien Loeb, Dani Sordo, Sebastien Ogier, Petter Solberg, Mikko Hirvonen and Jari-Matti Latvala. Behind them are a clutch of competent, experienced paying amateurs and semi-professionals: Federico Villagra, Matthew Wilson (there mainly because his father runs the Ford team), Henning Solberg, Mads Ostberg et cetera. It is as if, in Formula 1, behind the front runners like Hamilton, Alonso, Vettel, Kubica et al, the rest of the field was made up of a bunch of also-rans from the back half of the current GP2 and Renault World Series fields who happened to have the cash to pay for the ride.

It's always been true to some extent of rallying, but with only two manufacturers in the sport at the present, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that there is little strength in depth in the WRC at the moment. And it's hard to know what to make of the fact that Raikkonen has generally been able, just about to hang on to the back of this group in recent rallies. A sign that he's learning quickly, or merely that he's being flattered by a weak WRC field? Only in Bulgaria, where the Fords seemed to be really struggling, was Raikkonen trading times with the likes of Latvala and Hirvonen, rather than Wilson and Villagra.

I do rather wonder whether, by jumping straight into a WRC machine for a full season, Raikkonen is trying to run before he can walk. He might perhaps have learned more by spending a low key year in the Intercontinental Rally Challenge , learning his new trade at the wheel of something a little less powerful, away from the public eye. It's not as if the WRC is entirely devoid of talent either, with many of the drivers who might ten years ago have led one of the lesser manufacturer teams instead to be found there: Jan Kopecky, Kris Meeke, Juho Hanninen and, on occasion, fellow ex-F1 racer Stephane Sarrazin.

As it is, I'm beginning to wonder whether he has hit something of a brick wall - if after picking up the basics in winter testing, he's no longer really able to improve his game. Certainly, it does not appear, looking at his stage times, that he's really going any quicker than he was at the beginning of the season. His times tend to ebb and flow from around 2 to as much as 7% off the ultimate pace, just as they did on the opening rally in Sweden back in February. It's as if the car and the very different events - what, after all, does what a driver learns in Sweden do to help him in Jordan, or in Bulgaria and Japan - mean that he's not really able to learn much. Maybe it's expecting too much of him too soon - and we should be thinking in terms of a multi-year programme in which the results only really begin to come in his second or third season. After all, it took drivers like Solberg and Hirvonen some time to really get onto the pace, and for all that Raikkonen seems to have had a lot of accidents this year, I don't think he's actually had as many as Colin McRae did in his first full year in the WRC.

But is Raikkonen, who has, after all, come from an F1 world in which he was a champion and one of the recognised top drivers, patient enough to spend several seasons learning the black arts of rallying when he's already given over more than a decade of his life to perfecting the art of circuit racing? And even if he does intend to, when the novelty factor wears off, will Citroen and Red Bull be particularly interested in paying for him to do so? That just might be what is behind the rather unexpected noises about Raikkonen and Renault. For the reasons Joe Saward outlined in a perceptive article on his blog last week, I'm not convinced such a deal would make much sense for either Raikkonen or Renault. Renault can rely on Kubica for the inspired pace, and would perhaps be better served by a cheap, competent number 2 (Nick Heidfeld springs to mind) while Raikkonen looked washed up at the end of 2009 and if received wisdom is to be believed, was not overly enamoured of F1 life anyway.

So I hope he stays for another year, at least, in the World Rally Championship. I suspect that, with Sebastien Ogier doing everything to mark himself out as the new Sebastien Loeb at the moment, he will never reach the very pinnacle of rallying. He might have had the innate talent, but I suspect that a man trying to learn what is in a sense an entirely new sport at the age of 31 will never be able to reach quite the same level as someone who has been doing it since his teens. But given time, he might get close. I doubt he will ever go on to be the first man to win the World Rally Championship and the F1 World Championship, but he just might manage to be the first man to win both a WRC event and a Grand Prix. Which would surely be a more worthwhile aim than going back to an F1 world which has moved on in his absence.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Saying Kimi's last year in F1 was a wash is incredibly wrong. He did a fantastic job with a very slow Ferrari. Ferrari stopped developing that car in June and Kimi still went on to score 3 podiums and a win with that car, that was at most the 5th fastest. He single handedly put Ferrari 4th in the constructors championship. He scored more pionts in the second half of the sesean then Vettel, Webber, Button and Barrichello for example, who where driving much better cars then him.
Everyone is hailing Kubica this year for what he is doing, but if you think about it the Ferrari from last year is very comparable to the Renault this year, and Kubica hasn't won a race with that car. Kimi was actually doing a brilliant job last year. Ferrari wanted to get rid of him, but even they admitted that they did not know how he was doing so well with that car. The problem is we have all kinds of clever journalist who just likes to repeat that Kimi did a bad job last year without really looking at the results, a shame really.

As for WRC, no expected Kimi to be on the podium with practically zero experience. That is very unrealistic, rally is a difficult sport. Lets put Ogier and Loeb in Red Bulls and see if they are on the podium or just as fast as Lewis and Alonso, let them race around places like Monaco without crashing out. People would think I were crazy if I had such expectations. It is very much the same with Kimi, I dont think I have read of anyone who thought that he should be on the podium. For those reasons it is very difficult to evaluate Kimi's performances, when he has no experience, at least he is definitely better then Khalid Al Qassimi and Ken Block. I think his times are becoming consistently faster. Just look at day 2 of rally Japan, he was closer then he has ever been to the front on gravel. At the beginning of the year he was slower then Villagra but he was comfortably much faster then Villagra on 2 day. Kimi was pretty quick in Bulgaria, he wasn't to far off from Ogier's pace, and he almost managed to beat Ogier in the Rally della Lanterna. One thing that has been very impressive about Kimi is the way he has used the tyres. Loeb often gets hailed for the way he uses his tyres, Loeb has for example often used soft tyres when others wouldn't do it, for the fear of overcooking the tyres. Kimi has done the same thing, he has often used his tyres surprisingly well, when some of the others in Citroen have struggled with a particular tyre choice, Kimi has not. Rally is often about experience, it took Hirvonen a while to reach his current level, Latvala is only now starting profit. Ogier's results from last year is not to dissimilar from Kimi's results this year. Kimi's crashes are mostly as a result of him not hearing the notes, he obviously still has to learn to drive to the pacenotes. Of course it is very difficult to say whether Kimi will ever really reach the top drivers pace. But write him off at your own peril. Lets not forget that Kimi also entered F1 with only 23 car races as one of the most inexperienced rookies ever. He is a real natural, eventhough many people dont like to admit it.

4:20 AM  

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