What a difference two years make. When Kimi Raikkonen quit F1 racing to go rallying, few seemed that sorry to see him go. Now, having succeeded where another big name failed and staged a successful comeback, he is the darling of the paddock. Not that Raikkonen cares what people think – that much hasn’t changed. He just wants to go racing and win – and his win in Abu Dhabi was one of the most popular of the season. In an exclusive interview, Formula1.com caught up with the Lotus star ahead of this weekend’s Austin round…
Q: Kimi, winning the third to last race of the season is late but not too late. Before Abu Dhabi, did you still believe that it would happen this year?
Kimi Raikkonen: Ha, I always thought that it was possible. It was just a question of getting all the things right on a weekend and carry that on to the race. We’ve been able to improve the car a bit since Korea – since then we had some new parts. In India we had real good speed, but some mistakes in qualifying had put us in a bad position in the race, so I would say that Abu Dhabi was just a logical step when you manage to make no mistakes. We knew there that if things go smoothly that we would give ourselves a chance – and there you have it, we did it! (laughs)
Q: When looking at your qualifying stats, it’s hard to believe that you are third in the driver standing. What happens with you between Saturday afternoon and the chequered flag? Is there a switch that you flip that gives you that extra pace?
KR: No. It is more simple than that: our car is much more competitive in the race compared to others – and compared to qualifying with its one lap necessities. You have the same phenomenon with Ferrari: they are also lacking qualifying pace, but are right there in the race. We simply don’t have that one-lap speed that some others have, but for some reason our car is pretty good in the race.
Q: So you have got used to the situation that qualifying is a bit of a pain – and then you can squeeze everything out of the car in the race?
KR: That sounds like I am always doing terribly poor in qualifying, but that’s not the whole truth. I did a really good qualifying in Abu Dhabi that took me to P5 on the grid. I knew that I had to make a good start and, okay, it helped a bit that Sebastian [Vettel] was starting from the pit lane for whatever reasons. And indeed I made a good start and from there it rolled nicely. (laughs)
Q: What makes for a successful comeback? Why did it work for you and not for another famous name on the grid? Age, car, determination?
KR: I have no idea. Sure, you have to have a good car and a good team, but that is only one side of the coin I would assume. There are many factors involved and to be honest I do not have a clue what they are. There is no right or wrong way to stage a comeback. Sure, Michael Schumacher’s team is much bigger than mine, but we have good people, good people around me – and we can go for things. I was lucky to slip into F1 again as if I hadn’t been away – as if those two years melted down to one day – and the chemistry with the team worked from day one.
Q: Does 2012 satisfy you?
KR: You always want more. It is a bit sad that we couldn’t really fight for the championship, but I think that nobody really expected us to do so. Hopefully we put ourselves in this position next year.
Q: Did you come back believing that you really could go for the title?
KR: Maybe not this year, as I knew that the team had a difficult 2011, but I was sure that we would do well.
Q: What is good about your car?
KR: Overall it is a strong package. There is not one thing or part that is so much better than others. In other words there is not really a weak point in the car – and that is the reason that was making us so strong. Sure we need more straight-line speed, but as I just said, the strongest part of the car is that there is not really one thing bad.
Q: With signing you, the team hit the jackpot. How much influence do you have in the team? Are you one of those drivers who are the secret team principals of their team?
KR: No, not really. (laughs) I do my job in the car and others do it on the pit wall. They have helped me to come back and together we did nicely. There are absolutely no ambitions to be a shadow man. (laughs)
Q: Do the overalls and helmet maketh the man? Your movements are different in race gear than in civvies: here you stride, there you shuffle…
KR: Ha, is that so? (laughs) Well I don’t need to walk much in the race gear, so probably the impression of a sophisticated walker comes from there. I will monitor it.
Q: For so long you were one of the contenders for the title, but since Abu Dhabi that dream is over. That race left just Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso. Who is your favourite – and why?
KR: I would say that the Red Bull has been the strongest car this year, but then they have been retiring a few times. On the other hand the Ferrari has been quite reliable, but isn’t the fastest car. Maybe a bit of a similar story to us. So my guess is that Red Bull has the upper hand if the car doesn’t break down. If it is a normal race and no retirements then Red Bull should make it.
Q: Sebastian said that you come closest to being a friend among all the drivers. What is the basis for a driver friendship?
KR: Ha, I met Sebastian a long time a go in a race. He was a young guy then and I started to talk to him. Ever since that time we talk to each other when we meet. He is a straightforward guy and I like that.
Q: But it’s not like you are taking holidays together?
KR: No, but we used to live close to each other before he moved to his new place and he has spent quite a bit of time in Finland with his Finnish friends. And yes, I also would consider him a friend.
Q: Have you ever wondered why you are so popular after your comeback? Has the paddock realized that one rowdy character is worth more than 10 streamlined yes-men?
KR: Ha, isn’t it funny how things can change? I do my thing and some people like that and some don’t. One thing I have never tried is to please. Maybe this is popular these days! (laughs)
Q: Coming to this weekend, this is the first Grand Prix in the United States since 2007 – and the first on a track purpose built for F1 racing. What is your impression so far?
KR: First of all, it looks fantastic and from what I have experienced on the computer it also must feel fantastic to race it. I am very much looking forward to getting into the car tomorrow and getting a taste. Superficially you have to say that with the many colours it looks like a piece of art, so let’s hope that it is also arty to drive.
Q: You look set for third place in the drivers’ championship, so with no big surprises looming you must already be focusing on 2013. What are your ambitions then?
KR: I hope that we will have a good car – and the indications point in that direction. It will be a bit easier to start into the season because now we know what to expect from each other in the team. So we will definitely try to do better than this year, but everything revolves around a good car.
Q: How long are you planning to stay in F1 racing?
KR: I have a contract until the end of 2013 – and then we will see. 2013 might be my last year – and it might be not. You never know. At the moment I like it.