Wednesday 16 October 2013

Further thoughts on the Japanese Grand Prix

What's up with Kimi?
Kimi Raikkonen is popular; we know this.

The reservoir of goodwill that he can draw on his deep and plentiful, much more so than that of any other driver in modern F1. Criticism of him can be slow to manifest. To borrow from what Philippe Auclair once said of Michel Platini: to question him is something like walking into a Greenpeace convention wearing a ‘Dolphins are bastards’ T-shirt.

Kimi Raikkonen - struggling in recent weeks
Photo: Octane Photography
And probably Kimi is particularly grateful for all of this right now, as in recent weeks things haven't gone too well for him. In the Japanese race he finished a mere 37 seconds after his team mate Romain Grosjean - he wasn't just pipped in other words - and without much in the way of mitigating circumstance to explain the difference. Moreover Suzuka made it the third weekend on the bounce that Kimi has been plain outpaced by his stable mate pretty much for the duration. It was papered over to a degree by good results in the end in Singapore and Korea, but in each case he was helped to a degree by the race coming to him somewhat, particularly via a mid-race safety car (it wiped out a 25 second deficit to Grosjean in Yeongam for example).

Of course Grosjean's up-thrust of form is part of this, but still the difference suggests that Kimi's lost something at the same time. And to return to the point made where we came in: you suspect rather that if it was, um, one or two certain other drivers being beaten by their intra-team yardstick by this far and for this long we might have heard a bit more about it by now.

Lotus's Alan Permane reckons that Kimi doesn't like the new brand of Pirelli tyres introduced mid-season, in that they don't offer the same 'pointy' front end that the Finn craves. But even if this is so it doesn't in my judgement offer Kimi a way out. Not entirely anyway. As you feel that drivers, the top ones at least, should be able to adapt or else to sort the problem fairly quickly one way or another. At the very least for all of Kimi's considerable talents such a fussiness over handling, a narrow operating window if you will, is a relative weakness - it's very hard to imagine an Alonso, a Hamilton, even a Vettel, being similarly impeded. Not to this extent anyway: whatever the case it shouldn't result in a 37 second deficit to your team mate over a race. Even Alonso in his annus horribilis of 2007 never finished that far shy of Lewis Hamilton (not even when he drove like an amateur in Canada for example, or had to start mid-pack after a gearbox problem in France qualifying). And we've been here before too: when for much of the 2008 year as well as the first half of 2009 Kimi's performances outwardly became tepid when the car wasn't handling to his liking, and for whatever reason or reasons (and plenty have been mooted) it took rather a long time for it to be remedied. In 2008 again ironically it was down to not getting his preferred 'bite' from the front tyres.

So maybe handling is part of it. But with Kimi there's another possibility, one that he again has something of a previous for. Here for size is a quote from the 2006 Autocourse annual: 'Seasoned McLaren insiders could judge it perfectly: once Kimi Raikonnen arrived in the team's garage on a Friday morning, within an hour they would know whether the race weekend would involve his pitching in as a top contender or if they could write off the grand prix as a waste of time. Kimi, they reckoned, was that easy to read.'

Of course, one of the successes of the Kimi-Lotus relationship has been that those curious off days have been kept to much more of a minimum than had been the case when he was with his previous employers. But is it possible that now part of what we're seeing too is that - maybe because he's got a Ferrari contract in his pocket combined with the much-reported issues over his late retainer payments at Lotus - to some extent Kimi has checked out? One advantage that this explanation has is that the correlation is much stronger, in that his dip in form started in Singapore, the first race after his 2014 destination was announced. The revised tyres have been with us since the Hungary round all the way back in July, and initially Kimi's performances didn't seem to be impeded a great deal by them.

And, correct me if I'm wrong, weren't the revised tyres supposed to be loosely based on Pirelli's 2012 product? If so, they didn't really harm Kimi much then either.

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