Formula One: Kimi Raikkonen's contract extension with Ferrari raises hopes of seeing 'Iceman' at his best in 2018
Raikkonen’s extension does come at a time when most pundits and possibly even a large faction of his fans would rather see him retire than play second fiddle to Vettel
Ferrari announced an extension of their ‘technical and racing’ agreement with former world champion Kimi Raikkonen. Frankly, the only thing technical about Raikkonen is his overuse of the word ‘bwoah’!
Humour aside, Raikkonen, who is also Ferrari’s last driver to have won a Drivers’ Championship (back in 2007, Raikkonen won in his debut season with Ferrari), seemed on a sticky wicket when it came to his contract renewal.
It was only in July at the Austrian Grand Prix where Ferrari’s chairman and CEO, Sergio Marchionne, called him a ‘laggard’ and urged him to “participate more in the process”. Question is, did sacrificing personal wins in Monaco and Hungary swing things Raikkonen’s way?
An announcement in August seems both strange and early. Ferrari has traditionally reserved driver announcements for their home race in Monza (Italian Grand Prix, to be held from 1-3 September this year). But an early announcement indicates two things: first, Ferrari wants to focus on the battle at their hands, a Drivers’ Championship at the hands of Sebastian Vettel. It only makes sense to get the ‘silly season’ (the term used for the drivers’ market) distractions and speculations out of the way.
Second, a hint that Vettel might be extending his stay too. There have been rumours that one of Vettel’s demands from Ferrari for his extension was to retain Raikkonen as his team-mate and wingman.
Raikkonen’s extension of what could be his last and final season in top-flight of Motorsport does come at a time when most pundits and possibly even a large faction of his fans would rather see him retire than play second fiddle to Vettel. Is Raikkonen blocking a top seat that an emerging talent could do better in? In his second Formula 1 stint, Raikkonen has seldom managed to show shades of his former speedier self. It could be debated that the ‘formula’ of the Formula 1 cars didn’t suit Raikkonen’s driving style and when it did (like the current 2017-spec cars do), he did manage better. Like his sole pole position of the season in Monaco.
Does Raikkonen’s performance worthy himself of an extension with a World Championship-chasing team such as Ferrari? This is where the answer is as complex as the current hybrid power trains in use. This is also where Ferrari’s conservative approach and philosophy towards the driver market is apparent. The Italian team is known to retain their drivers way beyond their best-before date, case in point, Kimi Raikkonen.
One could even consider Felipe Massa as an example, but what he has achieved in his post-Ferrari days is pretty commendable too. But that’s for another day.
Ferrari are clear in their approach, the number one driver Vettel is expected to chase wins and the Drivers’ Championship, whereas the number two driver Raikkonen is expected to play wingman. Like he did in Hungary by holding back Hamilton while Vettel drove his steering problems to claim victory. Ferrari’s approach has evolved over the years, and in Raikkonen’s case, even though he has had yet another winless season and lags Vettel by 86 points, he still made the cut.
But would there be a better support driver, if they scouted for one?
Sergio Perez’s PR machinery did well to put him in pole position as Raikkonen’s replacement for the last few seasons. Romain Grosjean’s attempt to claim a Ferrari seat by impressing them at their customer team Haas was a good ploy too. There were talks that Fernando Alonso might reunite with his former team, or Carlos Sainz Jr leaving the Red Bull Racing stable to join Ferrari. Also, the Ferrari juniors: Charles LeClerc, who has set Formula 2 on fire this season and Antonio Giovinazz, who impressed on his Sauber debut as he stood-in for the injured Pascal Wehrlein, would’ve been slightly hopeful.
(Every time Ferrari’s driver options are discussed, it is hard to not forget the talent and speed that late Jules Bianchi would’ve brought to the Scuderia. RIP, Jules!)
But here’s where Ferrari’s conservative approach is evident. The former multiple world champion team is almost never open to handing their junior talent a debut season. They would rather let them hone their skills (and make all their rookie mistakes) and show their capabilities in their customer teams such as Sauber before handing them a promotion.
Ferrari would’ve also been mindful about maintaining stability in their team and between their drivers for 2018. The Vettel-Raikkonen friendship (a rare one in the paddock!) has been well reported, but more importantly, in Ferrari’s case, they’ve had a competitive car after many seasons and instead of focusing on helping a new driver settle, they would rather focus their energies on winning and helping Vettel win via a proven and uncomplaining wingman.
By hiring a Perez or Grosjean or the likes, there’s a chance that the young driver’s personal agendas might interfere with the team’s philosophy of having a designated number one driver.
(Silly Season update: It would be tough to imagine something other than status quo for much-discussed Ferrari hopefuls Sergio Perez, Romain Grosjean and Carlos Sainz Jr. If Raikkonen’s extension is a hint at Vettel’s too, Bottas’ confirmation at Mercedes for 2018 should be expected too. As for Fernando Alonso, we wouldn’t even trust the crystal ball)
By extending Raikkonen’s tenure for one-year only, Ferrari have chosen to keep their options open for 2019. At this moment, we would bet against a further extension for Raikkonen for 2019, but we would’ve done the same for 2018 and lost some money. If and possibly Vettel will race with the Scuderia in 2019 and longer, then Ferrari’s choices could further be to scout for support drivers rather than attract the prodigal talents such as Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo who have their own Drivers’ Championship hopes.
So while Raikkonen’s extension brings us much joy, we hope that there will be more to the legendary 'Iceman' in 2018 than his ever-funny radio messages.
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