Does Raikkonen Have The Heart For A Comeback?
With the announcement that it has added 2007 Formula 1 champion Kimi Raikkonen to its driver lineup in 2012, Renault has immediately made itself a serious contender. The decision to go with a 32-year old veteran rather than one of the many talented but untested drivers available sends a clear message - Renault wants to win and win now. But after a conspicuous 2-year absence from F1, does Raikkonen give Renault the ability to immediately compete for race victories? And if Renault fails to be instantly competitive, how will that shape Raikkonen's motivation? In short, does Raikkonen have the heart to write a compelling comeback story?
There is no doubting Raikkonen's talent or ability. He has proven himself as one of the world's fastest living drivers. He also brings a no-nonsense approach to the sport that is appreciated by many in the paddock and beyond. But his performance while at Ferrari in 2008 and 2009 was fraught with mental inconsistency and a technical inability to master the Bridgestone tire. Still, Raikkonen showed flashes of brilliance at times and logged double digit fastest laps during that span. These flashes proved that he had the pace but ultimately lacked the focus.
While Raikkonen's ability is beyond question, his often fleeting motivation has always been an mystery. Even during his 2007 world championship campaign, Raikkonen often seemed distant and detached. This did not mix well with Ferrari's history of steadfast passion and he was unceremoniously dropped from the team a mere two seasons later. His apparent lack of motivation has stuck with Raikkonen like a bad nickname and it begs a critical question: If Raikkonen was unmotivated in Maranello, what is to there is inspire him about Enstone? While at Ferrari, he was guaranteed a competitive car, technical support, endless funds and the most decorated team in F1 history. At Renault, he won't be guaranteed anything.
Yet there is room for optimism. Hopefully Raikkonen has taken his two years away from Formula 1 to recharge his batteries, restore his vigor and - most importantly - lengthen his patience for the sport. At 32-years old he is certainly young enough to have a long second wind in F1 and possibly win another world title - and possibly more. Given his statements over the past 24-hours regarding his overwhelming "hunger" to return to the sport, many fans may legitimately look forward to a successful comeback bid.
It is just as likely - however - that Raikkonen will quickly grow tired of running in the midfield while bearing the burden of Renault's expectations. Despite his best-laid plans, he is likely to struggle upon his return to the grid as he adapts to a new team, new equipment and complicated new rules. Remember, when Kimi left F1 there was no DRS, no Pirelli rubber and the most critical part of a pit-stop was refueling. Given these challenges, it is entirely possible that the emotionally transparent Raikkonen could wilt under the pressure and begin to simply mail it in at Renault.
Expectations for Raikkonen could not be higher. More than any other team on the grid, Renault needs a lift. After losing Robert Kubica to injury and suffering the embarrassment of an innovative but unsuccessful new exhaust system in 2011, Renault has failed to replicate its excellent 2010 campaign. The team's technical troubles will not be easily cured in 2012 and replacing Kubica - who was the legitimate heart and soul of the team - is not an enviable assignment. Ultimately, Raikkonen joins Renault when its spirits are at an all-time low. And while Kimi is a great driver, he has never been much of a cheerleader.
It might not immediately seem like it, but signing Raikkonen is a big risk for Renault. Obviously, Kimi has the skill and ability to write a compelling comeback story. But - at the same time - he may find the need to reestablish himself as a top-tier driver tiresome and boring. That could make his story a stumbling tragedy. Which Raikkonen will show up is anyone's guess. But it certainly makes things precarious at a team where morale is already waning.
At this point we should all be wishing Raikkonen well upon his return. All of this forecasting really isn't fair. He will almost certainly have his struggles early on, which - given the dearth of pre-season testing in F1 - will and should be forgiven. But his success will not hinge on the quest to once again master an F1 cockpit. Rather, whether he writes a successful comeback story will rest primarily on his ability to persevere. It will depend on his heart.
- Dana Larkin