Sunday 19 November 2017

Motorsport: The Iceman cometh again, so expect fireworks

Kimi Raikkonen's return to Ferrari is a bit like Burton and Taylor remarrying

David Kennedy

Hot on the heels of Red Bull's announcement that their Toro Rosso driver Daniel Ricciardo will replace Mark Webber, Ferrari added to the media frenzy by declaring that Kimi Raikkonen, 33 , would replace Felipe Massa, 32, thus ending months of speculation. The Raikkonen news provoked opinions ranging from the complimentary to the critical.

The Ferrari and Raikkonen combo is reminiscent of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton; they married, had a tempestuous relationship that hit peaks and troughs, with shared career highlights but a relationship that ultimately ended in divorce. Now they want to remarry.

With the passing of years they look back on their time together through rose-tinted spectacles. They've reached out to each other, but the doomed co-dependency could swing either way. Besides, there's a driver of the calibre of Alonso already on board, so isn't that bigamy? They may need to keep their lawyers on speed-dial if this gets complicated.

On the face of it the Finn seemed an obvious choice given his fantastic results with Lotus since joining them in 2012. In those 32 races he's had one retirement. Last year he won in Abu Dhabi, had three seconds, three thirds and finished third in the championship. In 2013, he won the opening race in Australia, finished second on five occasions and up to recently he was lying second in the title hunt.

In 2007, the year Raikkonen won the world title for Ferrari, he beat, by a single point, the warring McLaren duo of Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso. He outclassed his team-mate Massa in that first season with six wins to the Brazilian's three. But in the next season the roles were reversed and Massa won six races to Raikkonen's three. A serious accident in 2009 took its toll on Massa and he hasn't won another race since.

Meanwhile, that same year, Ferrari signed Alonso to replace Raikkonen a year before his contract expired. The Finn left F1 to compete in WRC rallying and Nascar truck racing. Perhaps he missed the squillion-dollar Ferrari pay cheque but whatever his motivation for returning, there's no denying that three years away from the game gave Raikkonen new impetus.

If they're looking for consistency, it makes perfect sense. If they're looking for motivation, get ready for the fireworks. If they're looking for a new world champion, that's not a given. Raikkonen may have obvious raw speed but his detractors criticised his inability to complete the circle of excellence that's required to win consistently at the highest level, citing his lifestyle and physical fitness (he once admitted, 'If I feel like it, I train') as two of the areas lacking in that approach. Attitude in adversity would make a third. Technical attention to detail would make a fourth. There are many flaws in the armoury of the 'Iceman' – a moniker he has inscribed on his helmet.

Raikkonen famously threw in the towel way too early, when, during a chaotic Malaysia 2009 race, he drove into the pits, climbed out of the car and went to the team's fridge for a Magnum, without being certain he couldn't rejoin the race. That is not the behaviour of a champion that is hot-wired to never give up.

Part two of Raikkonen's career has been courtesy of Lotus boss Eric Boullier who employed him despite the detractors. The Lotus team are a David against Goliaths – Red Bull, Ferrari, Mercedes and McLaren. The Frenchman does an outstanding job. But Lotus have now suffered a trilogy of losses of key people to Ferrari.

Following the defection of their technical director James Allison, their aerodynamic chief Dirk de Beer will join Raikkonen in the exodus to the Italian team. That's a body blow for Boullier. Maybe a hungry Nico Hulkenburg, who got a sensational fifth for Sauber in Monza last week, will lift their spirits if he signs for the Enstone outfit.

Massa walked the gauntlet of the adoring loyal Ferrari fans for a final time in Monza. He gets to say goodbye to his Brazilian supporters at the final race of the calendar at the end of November.

Massa gave Ferrari his all during the eight years he spent there and he almost paid for it with his life when he fractured his skull and came very close to losing his eye following an accident in qualifying for the Hungarian Grand Prix in 2009.

Ferrari were loyal and waited as long as it took for him to recover. He rewarded them with a second place in the opening race of 2010. Rob Smedley, Massa's long-term race engineer, doesn't see himself hanging around for the welcoming party for Raikkonen, a driver who is the polar opposite to the warm-hearted Latino. He's heading home, probably to Williams.

Out of Europe and on to Asia. Night racing from the Marina Bay street circuit in Singapore comes to our TVs in daylight hours next weekend. Vettel, Button, Alonso, Di Resta, Rosberg and Raikkonen made up the top six in 2012. Last year Alonso went into the race leading the championship 39 points ahead of Vettel who was fourth. This season Vettel has a 53-point lead over second-placed Alonso. Vettel and Alonso have won in Singapore twice, proving that even jet lag can't beat them to the chequered flag. Hamilton was victorious just once.

Italy has the world's most demanding opera fans who regularly boo poor performances in La Scala, Milan. Race fans went one better last weekend when they booed Vettel because he put in a good performance in Monza. He took it all in good spirits. Vettel is edging tantalisingly close to a fourth world title. But it's never over till the fat lady sings. He can't sing in Singapore nor are his rivals ready to concede defeat with their version of Con te Partiro, or, 'time to ... say goodbye'.

Sunday Independent

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