It's time Raikkonen moved over for someone younger
Defeat by Sebastian Vettel at Sunday’s Singapore Grand Prix was further confirmation that Kimi Raikkonen's days of being a lead driver are gone.
Not only did Raikkonen qualify nearly a second behind his pole-sitting team-mate, by allowing Daniel Ricciardo to start alongside Vettel, Raikkonen’s poor lap put Ferrari’s chances of victory in question. In the end, aided by two safety car periods, Vettel took a confident victory. But while Vettel was forced to watch his mirrors for second-placed Ricciardo all evening, Raikkonen crossed the finish line more than 17 seconds behind his team-mate – even after a safety-car restart only 23 laps prior. But Raikkonen’s 2015 Singapore Grand Prix defeat wasn’t a one-off and is just the latest in a years-long string of races in which, for whatever reason, his various team-mates have regularly gotten more out of their machinery.
Speaking after recording the 78th podium of his Formula 1 career, Raikkonen referred to his 2015 season as an “up and down year”. Perhaps it’s been a challenging year for Kimi, but it hasn’t been so unpredictable on the other side of the garage and while Raikkonen has accrued two podium places and 107 points in the 13 rounds to the Singapore GP (average: eight points per race), his team-mate stands on three race wins, six podiums and 203 points (average: 15 points per race).
The results haven’t been one-sided only on Sundays; Vettel leads Raikkonen 10-3 in Saturday qualifying and while Vettel has failed to make it to the third qualifying session once, Raikkonen hasn’t made it three times. Vettel’s mean qualifying result is fourth place, while Raikkonen’s is seventh. When your team has a car capable of regular podiums, the difference between starting fourth and starting seventh regularly could be worth the nearly 100-point deficit Raikkonen carries to Vettel with six races left in 2015.
And these poor Saturdays translate into poor Sundays.
When the pair have both finished on the same lap, Vettel has crossed the line on average 12 seconds ahead of his team-mate. Indeed, when Vettel and Raikkonen have crossed the finish line, Kimi has only been first to do it twice in 2015 (we could count the Belgian GP as a victory for Raikkonen, but for obvious reasons we won’t).
That’s not to say Raikkonen has had an issue-free year: at the Australian GP his left rear tyre came loose, forcing him out of the race from fifth position with 16 laps left; a large crash with Fernando Alonso at the Austrian Grand Prix put him out of running on the first lap at a race in which Vettel finished in fourth place; and power unit issues forced him to retire from the Hungarian GP while on course for a podium finish. Vettel’s championship, meanwhile, has been relatively issue-free save for a sloppy Bahrain and a late-race tyre failure at Spa, which cost a possible third-place result.
Before his temporary move to the World Rally Championship in 2010, Raikkonen had been defeated by team-mate Felipe Massa 97 points to 75 in 2008; in 2009 he was down 22 points to ten before Massa’s season-ending injury at the Hungarian Grand Prix.
Raikkonen won the 2012 Abu Dhabi GP with Lotus (© Lotus F1 Team)
After signing onto Lotus for 2012, his initial return suggested he’d regained his mojo: he defeated an erratic Romain Grosjean 207 points to 96 and in the following year he was again victorious, though not by such a great margin, at 183 points to 132 (despite the Finn missing the final two rounds of the championship after electing to have back surgery – coincidentally at the same time it became public his team was failing to pay for his services). But in 2014 he finished the season with only 34 per cent of then-team-mate Fernando Alonso’s tally: 161 points to 55.
Kimi’s lacklustre 2015 is nothing new. Since winning the 2007 World Drivers Championship, Raikkonen has been defeated by team-mates four years out of six (if we include the Massa-Raikkonen battle in 2009, after which Kimi was treated to a revolving door of little-celebrated team-mates). The 2015 Singapore Grand Prix presented the latest opportunity for Kimi to prove he was a top-tier driver, but yet again the opportunity slipped away.
In previous years Raikkonen has been able to get away with inconsistent results, or with failing to equal his team-mate. But with a Ferrari resurgence in 2015, they can’t any longer afford to carry a driver who secures two or three podium places a year. If Ferrari continue to improve into 2016, ultimately working toward a genuine championship bid, they will need to attempt it with a strong second driver to partner Sebastian Vettel. There are capable drivers like Valtteri Bottas, Daniel Ricciardo, Nico Hulkenberg and Max Verstappen (to name only a few) who would jump at the opportunity to drive for Ferrari - and any of those four would come at a fraction of the cost of Kimi Raikkonen, reported at around USD$20 million a season before bonuses.
there is so much genuine young talent on the grid, why do Ferrari choose to continue shooting themselves in the foot?
Where does Raikkonen go next? With a contract extension into 2016 agreed earlier this year, he’ll continue at Ferrari for at least another season. While drivers like those mentioned in the previous paragraph continue to express their readiness for a top drive, Ferrari management will need to consider which direction it wishes to take for the coming years. A well-documented healthy relationship between Vettel and Raikkonen will serve to keep things under control and in-line in Maranello, but with a view to future World Championships, barring any surprise Ferrari package in 2016 and beyond, fresh blood partnering Vettel could at this point only help their chances of future success and with Red Bull rumoured to be chasing Ferrari power units for 2016, any technical partnership could open up a whole catalogue of Red Bull Junior Team hopefuls to nurture toward the Ferrari family; with the organisation having scouted Vettel, Ricciardo and Verstappen in recent years it’s hard to argue such a proven resource couldn’t offer Ferrari the opportunity to try their luck with a promising newcomer. Such an agreement would complement Ferrari’s existing driver academy, which scouted Jules Bianchi and Sergio Perez prior to their debuts in F1.
Ferrari’s gains in 2015 have every chance of improving in the coming years. With Vettel secured for the long term, a solid supporting Ferrari driver is needed for any Constructors Championship success in this era. While there is so much genuine young talent on the grid, why do Ferrari choose to continue shooting themselves in the foot?
After 13 years in F1, and drives for McLaren, Ferrari and Lotus, it’s Raikkonen’s turn to move over for younger – quicker – drivers. If Ferrari wish to win Constructors’ and Drivers’ championships, without cars as dominant as the ones they produced in the early-2000s they won’t come easily with the current Vettel-Raikkonen partnership.
Ahead of the 2015 Japanese Grand Prix, and the remainder of the season, Raikkonen has plenty to prove.
(Opinion) Guest contribution by Toby Hussey @TobyHusseyWA