The reigning world champion had a poor season by his own standards, and
ended up playing second fiddle to Felipe Massa at Ferrari. But
occasional flashes showed that his incredible speed is still in there
somewhere, so what went wrong? Edd Straw explains.
Everyone had a theory for Kimi
Raikkonen’s underwhelming 2008 season. Was he demotivated? Was one
world championship title enough for him? Was he enjoying himself a
little too much off track? Was he letting his fitness slip a little?
Was it all about the tyres? Was the balance of the Ferrari F2008 wrong
for him? Was he on the cusp of retirement?
As ever, the reality of the situation was far more complex than such
broad brush strokes allow, but what was beyond question was that by the
final third of the season he was looking every bit the number two to
team leader Felipe Massa.
So was Kimi just slow in 2008? Well, actually he wasn’t.
Astonishingly, the Finn claimed ten out of 18 fastest laps over the
course of the year, matching Michael Schumacher’s all-time record for a
season. Granted, fastest laps are not necessarily the best indicator of
overall race performance – after all they only reflect a small snapshot
of a 200-mile grand prix – but in the case of Kimi, that one statistic
is the key to understanding his problems.
Even during his more lacklustre performances, the Finn was capable
of setting fastest laps, and he frequently did. The Hungarian Grand
Prix, where he qualified a distant sixth and was only promoted to a
third-place finish by Massa’s last-gasp engine failure, is a classic
example of that, as is Singapore where he was a massive eighth-tenths
off Massa’s pole lap. Yet despite two poor races, he still added a
couple of marks to the FL column.
In simple terms, this doesn’t add up. How can you combine being one
of the quickest drivers over one lap in a race with so often
under-delivering in qualifying? Most often cited as the root of the
problems were the Bridgestone control tyres. Like a number of other
drivers, including BMW Sauber’s Nick Heidfeld, Raikkonen struggled with
tyre warm-up in qualifying, meaning that his front tyres weren’t at
their optimum operating temperature throughout a qualifying lap. Once
again, there is more to this than meets the eye.
The way the tyres performed was more of a symptom of the problem
than the absolute cause. After all, as Bridgestone’s director of
motorsport tyre development Hirohide Hamashima points out, weren’t
these the same tyres that, despite difficulties adapting to at the
start of the year, Kimi won the title on in 2007?
"Of course, the tyres may have some responsibility, but I believe
that car set-up affects him more than tyre warm-up because those
compounds have been used for two years already," says Hamashima. "Last
year Kimi didn’t mention it, but this year many times he has complained
about tyre warm-up.
"So basically I think that the car characteristics are different
from last year to this year – the Ferrari has a little bit more of an
understeer tendency. That’s why Kimi couldn’t control the car so well
in qualifying, but sometimes had a quickest lap during the race."
Here things begin to add up. As a rule, the Ferrari F2008
understeered. This meant that Raikkonen struggled in qualifying,
particularly as the season went on and the prevailing characteristics
of the car edged further towards understeer. Add in a few tyre warm-up
difficulties to exacerbate the problem and you have car No.1
languishing on the second or third row of the grid.
Come the race start, it’s a similar situation with the car
understeering. However, as the first stint goes on, the Bridgestone
tyres begin to wear. In terms of balance, this would generally move the
car’s behaviour towards oversteer, meaning that Kimi finds the car more
to his liking a little later in the stint.
But by then, he’s bottled up behind the odd BMW and Heikki
Kovalainen, maybe even a Toyota or two, and can’t exploit that speed.
It isn’t until he finds some space in the second or third stint that he
is fully able to show his speed once the tyres have transformed the
handling of the car.
That was the story of too many of Raikkonen’s races in 2008.
"Basically the tyre is going to an oversteer tendency during the
race," says Hamashima. "Maybe the car is a little bit understeery, but
as the tyres move more towards oversteer Kimi finds a good balance and
as a result could get the best lap in the race."
Of course, there were races where the characteristics of the circuit
– Magny-Cours for example – meant he was able to get the tyre warm-up
right in qualifying and was able to excel on Saturday afternoon. There
were also times – Spa for example – where Raikkonen was able to charge
to the front on the opening lap, and we witnessed a performance worthy
of a world champion.
But, the fact was, there were just too many races where his struggle
to adapt his driving style to the understeering Ferrari F2008
undermined his chances.
Ironically, the Belgian Grand Prix, the very race that could have
heralded his return to form, was the one that seemed to kill off his
chances of defending the drivers’ title. Although he again qualified
disappointingly, it was largely as a consequence of a mistake and he
claimed to have made a stride forward with the handling.
"I am happier with the car now, but the mistake I made didn’t help,"
he said at the time. "So we didn’t get exactly what we wanted but at
least the car feels better."
He made amends for the mistake with a scintillating first couple of
laps. Pushing Massa towards the grass on the run to Les Combes on the
opening lap was definitely the Kimi of old, not a demotivated shadow,
and once he had capitalised on Lewis Hamilton’s La Source spin on the
second lap to take the lead a couple of corners later, he was gone.
This really could have been the race that turned things around. Then,
in the closing laps, it rained.
Hamilton carved into his lead and passed him – controversially –
into La Source in the closing stages. With the Ferrari hardly a
user-friendly car in the wet, he did amazingly well to retake the lead
from Hamilton, only to crash at Blanchimont later that lap. Ten points
became none and in the remaining five races he didn’t even look like
winning a race.
By his own admission, the motivation had waned a little despite
being able to secure an extra year on his Ferrari contract to take him
through to the end of 2010, a deal understood to be a result of him
scoring a certain proportion of the team’s net total of points over the
previous 18 months.
"That is the way it is," Raikkonen recently told Finnish TV station MTV3
when asked about his motivation. "If you know you are fighting only for
third place then you maybe don’t have the same speed for the whole race
as normal. If you have no chance to overtake or improve your position,
it is definitely not very interesting. When you are driving for the
title, naturally, things are completely different."
Other than in Shanghai, where he had to let Massa past for second
place, he was very much the junior partner at Ferrari in the title
run-in. And you wouldn’t completely blame Kimi for becoming a little
demotivated – there were times when it wasn’t just the handling of the
car that wasn’t on his side.
Wind back to the Spanish Grand Prix and things were looking very
good for him. He had just won in Barcelona – his second victory in the
opening four races – and was nine points clear of Hamilton in the
drivers’ championship. Things were looking very good; certainly far
better than they were last season when there were suggestions he was
under pressure for his seat after a difficult start to his Ferrari
In the next four races, Raikkonen was beset with catastrophic luck
that cost him big points. At Monaco, he had pole position but was given
a drive-through penalty because the team failed to get his wheels on
quickly enough before the start. No points. In Canada, he was preparing
for a pit-exit drag race with Robert Kubica when Hamilton clattered
into the back of him at the traffic lights. No points.
At Magny-Cours, he was supreme, obliterating Massa in qualifying and
cruising to victory when some exhaust damage dropped him to second. Two
points lost. At Silverstone, he was carving into Hamilton’s lead prior
to the first pit stop, only for Ferrari’s dodgy weather forecast to
lead to him being sent back out on worn standard wets on the brink of a
deluge. More points gone begging. Big points.
But ranged against that bad luck, there was also a second half of
the season during which there were too many races where he looked more
like an also-ran than a defending champion. Not even the occasional
majestic performances in Spain, Bahrain, Magny-Cours and Spa can
Two wins could have been three or four. That could have kept him at the sharp end of the title chase. That could
have given him the boost he needed to find that extra few tenths he
needed. The fact was, that wasn’t how it turned out and Raikkonen has
to be considered one of the disappointments of the season in terms of
delivering on his ability. Those days when he was on his game served
only to remind us of just how good he is.
The question is, can he bounce back after what was, pound for pound,
the worst season of his F1 career? With the return to slick tyres
expected to make the control Bridgestone tyres oversteery even on
qualifying laps, don’t bet against the driver who simply became "The
Finn" in 2008 regaining the right to insert "Flying" into his name next
year. But if he has another year like 2008, who knows what the future
Kimi always has ‘flying’ next to his name here! This was a really good ‘review’ of Kimi’s season by Edd Straw. I think he made the most important observations of the tyre situation and the ‘rule’ of the F2008. Straw gathered that not only were handling and set-up issues the problem, but there were races after Spain where Kimi was struck by endless bad luck, and missing out on a good 20-25 points from leading the championship were definately not his fault. It’s a team sport, let’s remember that.
Straw did also obliterate the ridiculous idea that Kimi wasn’t focused enough, with the fact that Spa was in the later half of the season and he performed superbly, where there was no sign of lack of determination or motivation. After the way it ended though, it was a huge blow and understandably. He continued to work though and began appearing on the podium again, scoring 3rd places consecutively in the final three races. The fastest lap award which Kimi has received for the second year running isn’t just acknowledging his awesome consistancy in speed – it’s a reminder that he was always giving his best, he loves driving, he goes as fast as he can to win and that’s all. I thank Autosport for paying some attention to the fastest driver on the grid – admit it everyone, he is. Haha!
Finally, Straw concluded that 2008 was no doubt Kimi’s worst F1 season. Looking back at the statistics excluding his first two seasons, it’s hard to see where but it’s the potential that Kimi could have reached this year which makes it the worst and disappointing, as obviously for the first time since 2003 his teammate beat him in the championship standings. It’s amazing how so much can change in a matter of months. After Kimi became world champion in 2007, I’m sure every fan thought we’d see greater days in 2008. All of us are heartbroken about it, even my brother said sorry to me about how it went for Kimi. He knows the amount of pressure that goes with being a loyal fan. The good thing about it, however, is that we know Kimi will do his best and make the most out of winter testing with the new regulations and tyres, he will fight back and he will win again.