One of the highlights of last year was, of course, the magnificent comeback of Kimi Räikkönen. A true champion, a natural talent, came back to F1 after spending 2 years in WRC and having completed two NASCAR races, and took the 3rd spot in the drivers’ championship with Lotus F1.
Kimi made his first appearance in F1 with Sauber, in testing at Mugello, on September 12th 2000 with a Sauber C19. The other drivers that concluded at that 3-day long test were Schumacher and Badoer with Ferrari, Panis with McLaren and Diniz with Sauber. But how did this test happen, how did Sauber pick Kimi up? MTV3 caught up with the man who made the test happen, none other than Kimi’s first engineer at the test and further his race engineer Jacky Eeckelaert…
The test came at the time Sauber was looking for a newyoung driver to replace Mika Salo who signed for Toyota. So Eeckelaert contacted Steve and David Robertson who looked after Jenson Button. Button had impressed the insiders and people who were watching young go-karters, at the age when racing drivers are focusing solely on their driving, without the distraction of other commitments. People often forget that it’s not all about speed, it’s not about if a driver is fast or not. This critical age is a key, since many other factors had to be taken into consideration to pick out the most important ones, like if a driver can cope with difficulties and how committed he is finding a solution to a problem he might come across.
In 1999, things moved very fast and Button had a test with Prost GP and then signed with Williams F1. For 2001 Button, would be replaced by Montoya at Williams, so Sauber investigated with Robertson to see if Jenson was available. The path of Button was planned and he made a contract with Renault and Flavio Briatore, so the Robertsons were asked if they had another young driver who could make the step up. “We have another driver named Kimi Räikkönen who has made his first full year in racing cars in Formula Renault”, was their reply. Eeckelaert asked for recommendations for Kimi from his contacts in the karting world and he only heard positive things. “This guy is very good, like Jenson Button, only with different character, a very very strong character since he has done many things on his own without any budget. Very committed ”, he was told. Sauber agreed to give him the test, since they already had Heidfeld for 2001, who had more experience with racing cars, so they could gamble with a more “inexperienced” driver on the second seat. A test was scheduled for September 12th 2000. The timing was perfect.
There was one problem though, physical demands. A step from a Formula Renault car into an F1 car would have been a very big step, especially for someone who had so little experience. Kimi went to the tests and Eeckelaert’s plan was to give him limited mileage. Mugello is a very demanding, physical track. So they went for only 3 timed laps per hour, in order to avoid any neck problems. That means an out lap, 3 fast laps, and an in lap. During the time during between the outings, Kimi and Eeckelaert compared the telemetry with the ones from Salo and Diniz, which were available from previous tests. Asked if he was nervous making his appearance in F1 car, Kimi replied: “Oh no! It was my dream driving an F1 car and now Im here to do it. I’m the happiest man. Why should I be nervous about?”
Kimi had to deal with totally different things to what he was used to, all new to him. Downforce levels, carbon brakes, braking points, g-forces, accelerations — very different from the Formula Renault cars he used to drive. But he managed to stay with the plan and to complete 29 laps. He may have been 2.5 sec slower than Diniz on the same car at the same day, but the laptime wasn’t the important thing.
When a driver gets behind the wheel of an F1 car for a first test he’s undergoing a small shock. The difference from any other racing car to F1 is massive. So any new driver can onlystart to unlock part of his potential on the second day of testing, having recorded the experiences taken from day one. From Eeckelaert’s experience, a gain of 1.5 sec could have been made overnight. The driver’s brain has a reset overnight and adapts to the “accelerated movie”. Things moved too fast. And so it happened.
From 1:30.008 in 29 laps, Räikkönen managed to do 1:27.130 the next day having completed 40 laps. The second day was more about working on telemetry. Kimi and his engineer analysed into it and found performance gains, new braking points and cornering angles. The progress was impressive. This field was something new for Räikkönen, but he managed to have input on the decisions taken. Peter Sauber, who was naturally interested to see how the test unfolded, called them up at the end of the second day. He was happy to hear that all went quite well.
But another driver who was also at the track had good things to tell about this youngster. It was Michael Schumacher, who was testing for Ferrari. Even though he passed Kimi a few times at the track, he also was quite impressed. “You can judge a good driver by following him on the track”, explained Eeckelaert, “and of course if Schumacher pops up by asking ‘who is this driver testing for you?’ then it’s only a good sign. When I replied to him that ‘its Kimi Räikkönen’, Schumacher said ‘He can be quick, he can be quick’”.
Having completed the 3 day test two things were pretty obvious. Kimi was a very fast and very talented, gifted driver, but his physical level was not at the right point to complete a 60 lap race. So much work had to be done on this level.
The first thought of Peter Sauber was to hire Kimi Räikkönen as test driver, but Eeckelaert told Sauber to get him onboard as a race driver. So another test was planned later in September, on the 28th. Again Schumacher was on track, with Räikkönen and Bernoldi (again for Sauber). Kimi was marginally faster than Bernoldi, with him been 1.7 sec/lap slower than Schumacher.
In the meantime Kimi had undergone a massive physical training programme so he could raise his game. His engineer was impressed since the feedback he gave and the judgment on any setup changes was very mature. “Are happy with oversteer during the two right handers?”, asked Eeckelaert and he got the reply from Räikkönen “Well it was ok, but if we change something I will have problems at other points of the track”.
So the main issue was the physical point. Sauber’s physio and ex physio of Ayrton Senna worked with him closely. Each time they setup a programme, Kimi came back even stronger, massive determined to make his dream come alive. In his first year in F1, Kimi managed to get 9 points, 3 less than his teammate Nick Heidfeld, a very impressive result. Not to forget is the fact that the team sponsor Red Bull pushed hard to get Bernoldi onboard, but Sauber defended his position and kept Räikkönen, such was his confident on him.
A new star was born, who until now has 175 GP starts, with 19 wins and 69 podium places*. And only Schumacher and Prost have more fastest laps to their name.
*And a world championship!