Saturday, 18 September 2010

Return of the Kimster?

Just when it seemed that the annual drivers' market silly season was getting boring, what do you know, Kimi Raikkonen has apparently thrown his hat into the Renault ring, to potentially partner Robert Kubica next season.

Bit of a bolt from the blue this one, coming just months after the mood music appeared to be that Kimi was content to stay in rallying, having had a quietly impressive debut year.

As has been pointed out, by Jonathan Noble on the Autosport website and others, there may be all sorts of Machiavellian sub-plots behind this apparent move, both from Renault and from Kimi. But in my view the move, on balance, just about makes sense.

No one doubts Kimi's natural talent. In my view it's greater than anyone in the current F1 field, including even Lewis Hamilton (whom I think has astonishing natural ability). Anyone who recalls the races in Japan in 2005, Spa in 2004, and others, has little doubt of Kimi's potential and genuine star quality.

Kimi has shown on occasion that he's bloody quick, and in ideal circumstances can beat all comers. He has won one world championship after all, and could have won three with better reliability from his McLaren in 2003 and 2005. If it was me making the decision at Renault I'd conclude that on driving potential, Kimi surely has to be considered by far the best bet when held in comparison to the other contenders. Surely Kimi, even at half cock, will be at least the equal the likes of Petrov or Sutil?

Plus, Kimi is very popular. A browse through any F1 fans forum will tell you this emphatically, with large numbers attracted to his amazing speed and bravery and to the excitement he brings, as well as to his resolutely apolitical and equanimous attitude out of the car. It also helps that he has an enigmatic air of rebellion about him (anyone that does this is alright with me). Therefore, having Kimi aboard has obvious benefits to Renault in terms of publicity, goodwill and attracting sponsors.

There are risks to hiring Kimi of course. The most prominent is that, for all his stellar talent, Kimi's performances at various points in his F1 career have been unfathomably poor. McLaren insiders, in Kimi's driving time there, even went as far as to claim that they knew within a few minutes of seeing Kimi on a Friday morning of a race meeting whether the weekend would be a good one or a total write-off. It's a characteristic that his teams have never absolutely got to the bottom of (possibly not helped by Kimi's legendary inscrutability).

Perhaps not entirely unrelated are feelings that Kimi perhaps 'relies too much on his talent'. His modus operandi is as a 'plug-in' driver: turning up and doing his driving and not hanging around long afterwards. But the flip-side of this is that it is less useful for giving his team technical direction, and also that technical problems with the car may take longer to solve than they would with, say, Alonso or Hamilton on the payroll. Kimi's struggles for virtually all of the 2008 season with getting sufficient heat in his tyres in qualifying, meaning he qualified so far down that he had no chance in the races (in a season wherein he ended up with race fastest lap virtually everywhere), perhaps illustrate this.

Were Kimi to join Renault there's also the matter that he would be paired with Robert Kubica, no number two. I personally don't think the 'two bulls in the same field' issue would apply here, as both men are resolutely apolitical and wouldn't play silly buggers behind the scenes. What does concern me is that Renault, and their predecessors at Benetton, have always been at their most competitive when backing one driver clearly over another (see Schumacher and, later, Alonso), and in seasons where they've tried to have two strong drivers on an even-keel, such as 1996, they have been less strong. It remains to be seen the extent that this would still be the case.

There is also a massive elephant in the room, called money. Kimi is used to earning a lot of it to drive F1 cars, but he'll seriously need to take these demands down a notch or two (or more to the point, Steve Robertson will) if he's to get the seat. Not only is it unlikely Renault could afford the $30m annually that he got at Ferrari (Kubica apparently earns around $7m-$8m), there's also sufficient risk in hiring Kimi to make this sort of money a show stopper, at least in the early days. Renault have admitted that this may be a problem.

But, if Kimi's management gets sensible, I hope Eric Boullier disregards all of the drawbacks I mentioned and gives the Renault gig to Kimi for next year. F1 would be all the better for the return of the Kimster.

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