The battle to get Raikkonen on the F1 grid

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The battle to get Raikkonen on the F1 grid

Post by kals » 6 months ago

I saw Kimi a few times in Formula Renault during the 2000 season and he was pretty standout. His pursuit by Sauber to get him a race seat was quite an interesting tail during the latter part of that year. wrote:Kimi Raikkonen's career path has been unusual in many ways, but no element of his CV is as special as the jump he made from Formula Renault to Formula 1 in 2001 with just 23 car races under his belt.

Thanks to ever-stricter superlicence requirements, such a move has never been repeated. In 2000 the 20-year-old Raikkonen stormed to the Formula Renault UK title, under the guidance of his management team - the late David Robertson and his son, Steve.

The Robertsons had recently helped to propel Jenson Button into a Williams race seat, and they hoped lightning might strike twice.

"What was impressive about Kimi's year in Formula Renault wasn't the fact that he was winning, but the way he was winning," Steve recalls. "He was breaking all the lap records, and winning the races by 15-20 seconds, basically in a league of his own, and pushing himself. The composure that he had, the ease with which he was dominating, Kimi felt he was ready to make the step.

"We just wanted to see if there was an opportunity for Kimi to get into F1. It wasn't just Sauber, there were other teams at the time - Jordan and Williams, I think. We put the feelers out. If we hadn't had a race seat with Sauber we would have had a test deal with somebody else."

Sauber popped up on the radar as a good bet. That summer there had been some tension between the team and Pedro Diniz, who felt that he was being measured against test driver Enrique Bernoldi - the protege of main sponsor Red Bull.

"The conversations started with Peter Sauber," says Robertson. "It was, 'There's a hotshoe that you've got the opportunity to have, if you want him. If you leave it any longer then other teams will take him, as he's clearly a super talent'. He took a bit of convincing but my father sold him on the fact that Kimi was a superstar, ready to make the big time."

Against the odds, Sauber agreed to give Raikkonen a test at Mugello. So what made the difference?

"We had a chat about it, Peter and myself, a few days ago," recalls Beat Zehnder, the team manager of the Swiss outfit.

"We cannot recall why Peter gave him a chance. We have no idea how it happened! As a team principal you have a dozen emails and letters every week: 'My son is the biggest talent', 'I'm a 28-year-old Indian taxi driver and I'm quicker than everyone else'.

"And the Robertsons said, 'We have this talented kid'. We knew them as driver managers, but we never had any close connection, we never had anything to do with them before. We really cannot recall why Peter said, 'Yes, let him drive in Mugello'.

"Kimi didn't have an FIA A-licence, and even then you needed an A-licence to drive an F1 car in testing. So, in a rush, we had to organise one with the Finnish ASN. First I had to learn how to spell his surname."

After doing some homework at the Hinwil factory, Kimi travelled to Mugello for his first outing on September 12. The team had scheduled three days of running for the newcomer.

"Initially they were doing outs, one flying lap, and in," says Robertson. "They did that four or five times, obviously just trying not to kill Kimi's neck. He only did 25-30 laps, but by the end of the day he was close to a really competitive time, bearing in mind he'd just jumped from Formula Renault.

"So impressed were the engineers with his performance on the first day that Peter and [technical director] Willy Rampf flew in the following morning. I think in the first 10 laps he'd done the quickest time they'd ever done there. Peter was so excited."

Zehnder recalls: "It was quite clear he was a massive talent. It was his first time sitting in a 900-horsepower car, and after 20 laps he was probably 0.8 seconds slower than Pedro. And the second day he was quicker than Pedro's time.

"It probably helped as well, and this is not a joke, that Michael Schumacher came by in the evening and said, 'Who is this kid? I was following him and he seems to have huge car control.'"

That endorsement, from a man who had driven for Sauber in sportscars, was to prove invaluable for Raikkonen.

"There are certain drivers where you feel the dedication and the passion," says Zehnder. "Although they don't talk a lot, for me it was with Kimi, it was with Michael in Group C, it was with Robert Kubica. They have this aura of wanting something. You could see Kimi's sheer dedication to speed."

At a second one-day test in Mugello two weeks later, Raikkonen outpaced Bernoldi. Then things began to happen quickly. Sauber was by now convinced that Raikkonen could step straight into a race seat in 2001, joining Nick Heidfeld who was already signed up.

"After Mugello, first we said let's try to organise him a superlicence, which wasn't easy," says Zehnder. "The FIA had to agree, Bernie [Ecclestone] had to agree. It was hard work for Peter to convince all the team principals. He received a lot of criticism. One of the team principals - who hired Kimi half a year later - said Peter Sauber is insane getting a kid with no experience whatsoever in single-seaters.

"It was also the end of Red Bull with Sauber, basically. We fought over Kimi. Red Bull had other ideas, but I'd followed Bernoldi in Formula 3000 for a whole year, and he wasn't anywhere near to Kimi in terms of talent and dedication."

While the politics unfolded, Raikkonen was urged to work on his condition with Sauber physio Josef Leberer, who had been one of Ayrton Senna's closest confidantes.

"We told him you have to do physical preparation," adds Zehnder. "So we sent him for four weeks to Austria with Josef. He was so angry with us that he wouldn't talk to Josef for two days! Josef had him running up and down the mountains. He was pissed off, but we said, 'If you want to be an F1 driver you have to be better prepared physically and mentally'."

"Peter saw something really special in Kimi," says Robertson. "He was fighting, as it was very much against the establishment that this kid was bypassing F3 and F3000; there were so many negative comments. People were writing to the FIA saying how can you kill the motor racing industry like this when you allow someone to jump up? Jacques Villeneuve was very negative.

"To race in Melbourne Kimi had to get through a test in Jerez under FIA observation, seeing how he conducted himself, and he passed with flying colours."

That early December test, which included his first F1 wet mileage, was crucial - immediately afterwards he was granted a superlicence, and his place on the 2001 grid.

But then-FIA President Max Mosley made it clear he would be on probation in the opening grands prix. In Melbourne, Raikkonen looked totally at home as he qualified 13th for what would be only his 24th car race.

"So many headlines were about Kimi," says Robertson. "There was a lot of pressure on him, he was reading the stories like we were reading. It didn't stop Kimi doing what Kimi does - he didn't let anything fluster him."

Zehnder adds: "The nickname Iceman wasn't created then. But we should have done it. He was so cool, so relaxed. A few minutes before he was due to go the grid, everyone was looking for Kimi, he wasn't there. No one could find him.

"There was a catering table in our office covered in a blanket, and Kimi was lying underneath with his head on a paper roll, sleeping. Josef said, 'Come on man, in five minutes you have to drive out'. He was, 'Give me another minute!'"

Raikkonen finished seventh on the road on his debut, at a time when only the top six scored. However, team-mate Heidfeld was adamant that he had been passed under yellows by BAR's Olivier Panis. An investigation resulted in the Frenchman being penalised, and Kimi moved up a place.

"He had already left the circuit," says Zehnder. "I called him, he was in the hotel, and I said, 'Hey, mate, congratulations, you've been promoted to sixth place. First race, first point'. Then he said, 'There are still five in front of me...'"

He impressed the team with his sangfroid in round four at Imola in April when the steering wheel came off in his hands - fortunately when heading up the hill from the slow Tosa corner.

He put in a superb charge to fourth in Austria in May, surviving a yellow flag overtaking investigation that would go all the way to Paris, and logged another fourth in Canada in June.

"The McLaren thing started in June," says Zehnder. "It was obvious already in Montreal. We were invited to [Cirque du Soleil boss] Guy Laliberte's house on Sunday night, and Ron Dennis was there and Mika Hakkinen was there, and they worked on him hard from all sides. Ron promised to make him the youngest world champion.

"Quite early it was obvious that he was a huge talent, and Ron wasn't the only one who was interested, there were others.

"He had a solid three-year contract, and it's always a question of do you want to force a driver to stay if he's got a better offer? Not financially, but in terms of sporting success."

McLaren's interest developed into formal discussions - to the frustration of Kimi's team-mate, who outscored him over the season.

"Ron had Heidfeld under contract," says Robertson. "But he pursued Kimi because he saw things in him that we all saw. It was like Manchester United knocking on the door. What do you do? And will that chance be there next year?"

In early September, Raikkonen had a lucky escape from a huge testing crash at Magny-Cours - the legacy was a back issue that still troubles him today. Then at Monza, a year and two days after that first Mugello test with Sauber, he was confirmed as Hakkinen's replacement at McLaren for 2002.

"Peter actually wanted to keep him," says Robertson. "He obviously knew of the commercial opportunity there but would have preferred Kimi to stay, at least for another year. In the end, he got a good deal from having a young driver for just one season. They built what we called the Kimi windtunnel!"

Raikkonen's rookie year ended on a low note when a rear suspension failure pitched him off the road on lap six at Suzuka. By that evening he was already embedded in the McLaren camp, partying with Dennis at the track's Log Cabin karaoke rooms.

"The fourth places stand out as highlights of the season," Robertson recalls. "Basically for us it was a validation of what we always believed: that this kid was someone who was born to be in F1. He was making headlines in a positive way by then, because people could really see that he deserved to be there."

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Post by Everso Biggyballies » 6 months ago

Thanks for that. I was aware of what had happened but it is always nice to get it from credible / insider sources.
I was always a fan from having seen him live at the track in P1 Albert Park 2001. There was quite a lot of local media interest due to his arrival out of the blue. He did not seem in the slightest bit overawed by the F1 circus.

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Post by DoubleFart » 6 months ago

Enjoyed that. 10 year old me saw a Formula Renault race that Kimi dominated on Transworld Sport or something like that, was a good win but thought nothing of it. Couldn't believe it when he was in line for an F1 drive.

There was something magical for me about Kimi in those first couple of years and I was a massive fan. Much less so when he moved to Ferrari for pt1.
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Post by Antonov » 6 months ago

Kimi is fantastic to see in position of underdog, eg. McLaren, Lotus, and hopefully now Alfa.

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