Mark Hughes explains why Kimi Raikkonen’s storming Hungarian GP drive was right on cue for his return to the venue he has proved nearly unbeatable at in the past – legendary Spa – and how a fifth win there could yet help heal certain old wounds…
“It’s very difficult to see anyone other than Kimi Raikkonen winning at Spa,” said a Ferrari team member, and it was easy to see his point.
Since winning there for the first time in 2004 in a McLaren that was far from competitive that year, Raikkonen has been the star performer at his every subsequent appearance at the venue. He won there again for McLaren in 2005. In 2006 the race wasn’t held, but he returned to dominate in 2007 with Ferrari. In 2008 he was denied only through a late rain shower which exposed his car’s inability to keep tyre temperature. Prior to that he’d been on-course for a comfortable victory. One year later, with the severely compromised 2009 Ferrari, he won again.
There is just something about the Spa-Francorchamps circuit, its fast sweeps through the valley, that suits Raikkonen perfectly – and off the back of by far the best performance of his comeback career to date at Hungary, he will arrive at his favourite track as a man on form.
Then consider his car: the Lotus E20 has yet to win a race but has often been the quickest on race day. Its speciality is fast sweeps – just like those of Spa. Add to that the team’s planned introduction of its passive F-duct, the rear wing drag-reducing device that works both in and out of DRS mode, hugely valuable down the long straights there. As a Spa package, you have to admit Raikkonen/Lotus sounds formidable.
At Hungary we finally saw in full the driver that Raikkonen used to be. His pace as the second stops approached – where he lifted himself up from trailing Sebastian Vettel for third to almost vying for the win with Hamilton, overcoming what at one stages had been a 15s deficit – was mesmerising.
As Red Bull realised he was catching Vettel fast, so they pitted their man but even on new tyres Seb could not keep pace with the speed Raikkonen was unleashing as he stayed out on his old tyres. “For most of that second stint, as he sat some way behind Vettel, I didn’t foresee him doing anything other than staying there and I was a bit concerned at how slow he was going,” said Lotus’ engineering chief Alan Permane, “but he’d just been looking after his tyres and when the time came, he just went crazy. He was quite awesome there.”
Lewis Hamilton had been lapping in the mid-high 1m27s in the lead before his stop. Raikkonen was now in the high 1m 25s. Even as Hamilton rejoined on his new rubber he was only lapping in the mid-26s and for a couple of laps, a Raikkonen win looked possible. Hamilton’s primes then came in just as Kimi’s 23 lap-old options finally gave up.
Raikkonen has several times raced strongly this year, most notably in pressuring Vettel for victory in Bahrain, but that little seven-lap sequence at the Hungaroring was the first time since his return from his two year rallying sabbatical that the savagely fast driver of his great days has been evident.
It comes at an interesting time, as Ferrari refuse to downplay the rumour that they would like him back as Felipe Massa’s replacement for 2013. “If we replaced Felipe,” said a Ferrari insider, “we would need to be sure that the replacement would perform to a higher level than him and although there are several good young drivers we are considering, that certainty isn’t there. In many ways Kimi would be the ideal solution; he is fast, experienced and un-political. Everyone at the team already knows how he works, they like him and Fernando would not have a problem to have him as team-mate. But there is a problem.”
That problem is believed to be the less than friendly terms the relationship between Raikkonen and Ferrari President Luca di Montezemelo ended on when the Finn was paid off with one year of his contract still to run. In turn, those close to Kimi say he has vowed never to work with di Montezemelo again. Asked about it, Raikkonen would only say: “I always said I didn’t have any bad feelings against Ferrari. I had a good time with the team. I won my championship there but things could probably gone in a nicer way in the end. Life goes on and you never know what happens in the future.”
With two proud men vowing never to get back together again, you’d have to say the prospect of Raikkonen’s return to Maranello must be rated as slim. But in a way, that’s not the story: the story is that there are elements of the management trying to persuade both men to change their minds.
If Kimi could arrive at Monza – where Montezemelo habitually graces the paddock – as the Spa victor, might that rapprochement become one step more feasible?