Mid-season F1 review: Kimi Raikkonen leads Alfa Romeo return
It was goodbye to Sauber, and hello to Alfa Romeo, as the rebranded team continued its gradual rise up Formula 1’s midfield group in 2019. Motorsport Week continues its team-by-team review with the definitely-not-Swiss squad.
High point: Raikkonen's superb qualifying lap in Germany
Low point: Miserable pace-less display in Spain
Life in Formula 1 can move at warp speed. Early in 2017 Sauber, once renowned for its efficiency and canniness, had slumped to the rear after years of mismanagement, had its very future threatened, and was poised to embark on a new chapter with Honda. Fast forward two years and it has undergone a raft of changes, refreshed its driver line-up – improving to the extent that it could recruit a driver of Kimi Raikkonen’s calibre – forged a close alliance with Ferrari, and has done so despite being on its third technical director in 18 months.
That greater alignment with Ferrari has resulted in the Sauber name disappearing from Formula 1 (though the team is still run by Sauber Motorsport) and the Alfa Romeo moniker returning after being 2018 title sponsor. Inside Formula 1 it makes little discernible difference but to the outside world it is certainly a more attractive and recognisable name. Alfa Romeo largely picked up where Sauber left off, as Raikkonen slipped with ease back into the team which he departed 17 years previously. Q3 performances and points were a regular early on, with Raikkonen running largely unobtrusive but effective races to bag the top 10 points. A dip in performance through Spain, Monaco and Canada highlighted weaknesses, with the team struggling in the Barcelona heat, and perplexed by its Thursday to Saturday dip around the streets of the Principality. The team returned to the top 10 in France and has remained there ever since, leaving Raikkonen buoyed not just by the raft of updates but also their effectiveness: what can be delivered to the track is then delivering on the track. That is not the case in every team, and goes to show the sterling work undertaken at Hinwil, where its state-of-the-art facilities are now fully up and running after years of underutilisation due to budgetary constraints. Moving forward it should be a case of more of the same, while ensuring that the expanding team retains as much of its independent creativity as possible, not just looking to replicate what it can from Ferrari.
Raikkonen has been one of the midfield’s standout drivers this year, a fact that should come as little surprise given the inherent quality and skill at the Finn’s fingertips, even as he approaches 40-years-old. Raikkonen has cut a more relaxed and open figure off-track, allowed more freedom at Alfa Romeo compared to the raft of marketing duties he had to fulfil at Ferrari. Ask a stupid question, get a stupid answer, ask an insightful question and Raikkonen can elaborate eloquently just as well – or better – than any driver. Raikkonen’s presence brings prestige to a team that has typically fielded young talents or well-funded racers, and the operation has undoubtedly got a spring in its step from having someone of his calibre and experience. Raikkonen has proven adept at fighting in the closely-contested midfield group and has mastered several strategies that has seen him cannily creep into the points at races where others may have faltered. Five Q3 appearances have been turned into eight (which should have been nine) points finishes. Of those Q3 presences his lap in Germany was outstanding, as fifth on the grid would have been better rewarded had wet weather – and incorrect clutch torque settings – not intervened. He still has a legion of fans, is still delivering, and is still ultra cool.
Raikkonen has 31 points. Antonio Giovinazzi has just the one. It has been a bad season results-wise for the amiable Italian but delve deeper into the picture and it has not been anywhere near as tepid. Giovinazzi has been out of a full-time race seat for two years and adjusting back to Formula 1, in particular the extremely close mid-grid, has not been easy for the Italian. What’s more, he is up against a World Champion with 290 more starts to his name. “The positive thing is you can learn from him, watch his data, watch what he’s doing in meetings or on the track or whatever,” said Giovinazzi. “You can learn how much is possible compared to a normal driver – he’s a World Champion driver so he’s like a target for you. From the other side of course he’s a World Champion driver and also in terms of result he will be always there, he will never make a mistake, he has a lot of experience, he knows what to do.” A driver of Raikkonen’s stature, and consistency, therefore accentuates any struggle for Giovinazzi. There have been setbacks and occasions where Giovinazzi has slipped into obscurity, but there have also been highs, as recent one-lap gains have left him closer to Raikkonen. The lack of viable alternatives probably secures him a 2020 stay of execution before the Mick Schumacher train rolls into town, but he’ll need to step up after the summer break.
Have you been impressed by Alfa Romeo this season? Let us know in the comments section below!