Kimi Raikkonen, Charles Leclerc, Paul Ricard, 2021

Raikkonen on his surprise debut 20 years ago and how drivers race each other harder now

Interview

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Besides being the 2007 Formula 1 world champion and 21-times grand prix winner, the fiercely independent Kimi Raikkonen has acquired another accolade of late. Last year he surpassed Rubens Barrichello as the most experienced driver in the history of the sport.

Raikkonen, who spoke to RaceFans on the occasion of his 340th grand prix start at the Hungaroring last weekend, is characteristically nonplussed by such milestones. But he’s come a long way from the driver whose made his F1 debut 20 years ago after just 23 starts in Formula Renault.

Today’s superlicence points system would make such a leap impossible. Then-FIA president Max Mosley cast doubt on Raikkonen’s suitability for his debut, and required him to complete his first four races on a probationary basis. Sixth place on his debut – which paid one point back then rather than eight today – left few in doubt of Raikkonen’s abilities.

It wasn’t as if the driver who emerged from a relatively obscure background in karting needed more obstacles placing in his path. Indeed, as Raikkonen explains, he didn’t even consider Formula 1 a likely destination until shortly before he arrived.

“I was doing go-karts and it got to the point that it didn’t cost anything,” he told RaceFans. “I got some pocket money working with Peter de Bruijn between the races and building go-karts that I sold. I thought that I can do go-kart for the next 10 years and at some point I’d get some money out of it.”

Kimi Raikkonen Manor Formula Renault car
Raikkonen made the leap from Formula Renault with Manor…
Having dipped his toe in the Formula Renault UK series at the end of 1999, Raikkonen returned for an assault on the championship the following year. From 12 rounds on unfamiliar circuits he produced seven wins and a further three podium finishes.

The patronage of David and Steve Robertson, who funded his move into car racing, propelled Raikkonen into F1 with astonishing speed. “Without the Robertsons I would never had the chance to go for the racing in cars, that’s for sure. That was the next big step from go-karts.”

He also pocketed his first salary, a chunk of which went back to his parents who had bankrolled his karting, and was used to pay for improvements to the family home. “We never had an indoor toiler when I lived there and obviously we did that work, and I bought a small piece of land next to our home.”

Based on Raikkonen’s remarkable showing in Formula Renault, the Robertsons persuaded Peter Sauber to give him a Formula 1 test. The chosen venue was Mugello, a high-speed circuit where the young driver found the cornering performance of F1 cars was a shock to the system.

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Raikkonen admits he had little idea at the time whether he was up to the physical demands of driving an F1 car, but wasn’t about to voice any doubts. “If I had a chance, I will take it, because obviously you might not get many chances in here. I obviously tried to use the chance as long as I can. Who knows what comes out of it.

…to racing for Sauber in Formula 1
“For sure it was hard to drive it. No power steering, my neck couldn’t take it. Obviously from Formula Renault the braking and the speed through the corner was completely a different story than I was used to. So on that side I was not ready. But obviously I wouldn’t tell them that ‘no, sorry, I can’t come because I’m not feeling strong enough’ or something.”

A vital advantage he enjoyed back when testing was unlimited in F1 was that the team gave him three days of lapping with plenty of gaps between runs.

“The first day for sure [it felt] everything was like happening too fast. But it’s funny how the head works out. Once I slept overnight then everything kind of slowed down and was looking much more normal. So it became much easier.

“Obviously they knew that it will be difficult to do many laps in a row. So I did like three laps always in a row and then came in.”

Mugello was “not maybe the easiest place” to have his first F1 test, he admits. “But I wouldn’t complain. For sure it wasn’t sometimes so easy the steering on the fast corners without the power steering but it worked out okay.”

The addition of Raikkonen’s name to the 2001 Formula 1 entry list prompted bemusement from many: Who was this Finnish driver who hadn’t been seen on a Formula 3 grid, let alone Formula 3000 (precursor to today’s Formula 2)? His lack of experience led to the infamous wrangle over his superlicence, though Raikkonen didn’t concern himself with the detail of how long his temporary licence was due to last.

Sauber prevailed in superlicence wrangle over Raikkonen
“There was this story about the superlicence, if I would get it. Probably I worried about it but I never found out if I have it for one race or two races, I never even asked.” After acquitting himself well with the Sauber over the opening races, Raikkonen’s place in the sport was assured. His speed impressed too, so much so that McLaren passed over his team mate – their junior driver Nick Heidfeld – and promoted Raikkonen to their team for 2002.

This period of Formula 1 – light cars, V10 engines, tyre war-era rubber and unlimited testing – remains among his favourite in the sport. He names the 2005 McLaren MP4-20, in which he won seven races yet narrowly missed the title, as one of the most satisfying to drive.

“Those Michelin tyres when you could kind of pick and choose what you want, that was obviously nice,” he recalls. “It was like a set-up tool that every team could have their own wishes. That was a nice time.”

Its successor, which followed the sport’s switch to V8 engines, was better than its win-less record suggested, Raikkonen adds. “In 2006 the car was actually very good but the engine wasn’t good enough, obviously.”

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By then he had already inked a deal to join Ferrari in place of Michael Schumacher and, as it turned out, win the title at the first time of asking with the Scuderia in a car he describes as another of his favourites.

Although he split from Ferrari just two years later when they made a swoop for Fernando Alonso, Raikkonen returned to the team in 2014. Four years later he scored his most recent victory to date with the team. Ferrari gave him the car he used to take that win at the Circuit of the Americas.

Kimi Raikkonen, Ferrari, Circuit of the Americas, 2018
Raikkonen kept the car he raced to his most recent win
“It’s a full running car so I [can] take it to the track and use it,” he explains. “But obviously I need a few mechanics to come from Italy to start it up.”

He hasn’t taken it out for a drive yet, but intends to do so “when I’m old enough that it’s scary”.

Since losing his drive at Ferrari, Raikkonen is now in his third season back with Sauber in their Alfa Romeo-branded F1 outfit. There are some drivers who wouldn’t countenance staying on in Formula 1 with a midfield team after winning a world championship. Raikkonen’s remarkable longevity demonstrates he isn’t one of them.

Much has changed during that 20-year spell bookended by stints with the same team, and not all for the better, says Raikkonen. That includes the slashing of in-season testing as the calendar has become packed with more and more races.

“Sometimes you wish it would be a bit more [testing] or you could kind of pick and choose when you could do it,” he says. “Like maybe there could be 10 days and you pick and choose when you use them. Maybe somewhere in the middle.

“It really depends. If you have a good car everything is nice and easy, but sometimes it would be nice to try some things and see what happens.

“We can do it on Fridays in the race tracks. But I think how it was in the past, obviously there was less racing, but then we had testing. For sure that was harder than it is now.”

The sport becomes ever more tightly regulated with every passing year. Raikkonen fell foul of this at Imola in April, where he lost one of the team’s few top 10 finishes this season due to a regulation which even the stewards admitted was arguably inconsistent with other rules.

The Michelin-shod McLaren MP4-20 was a career highlight
He finds the idea of a return to the slimmer rulebooks of the past appealing, if not realistic. Today’s generation of drivers are quick to ruthlessly exploit every last detail in the rulebook, he notes.

“In the past, the drivers kind of – I don’t know what’s the right word, not ‘fair’ – but now it’s more that you need the rules in a way. I think you could get rid of a lot of rules if you were more harsh on some things.”

He points to the ‘three strikes’ rule often used in enforcing track limits. “I don’t mean that you need to give more penalties or anything, but if you get penalised for doing something wrong, people would stop doing it because they know.

“Now there’s always this grey area that you have ‘three chances’. So obviously everybody will use it. But if you tell them ‘this is what’s going to happen if you do it’, we will not do it because we know. Now you can get away with a lot of things, but not so much.”

“If we’re told that if you go off, obviously there’s things [from the car] that you can lose if you go off, but those are usually quite obvious things. So nobody will take the piss out of it. But that’s not our thing to change.”

While other areas of the sport have changed, it’s the difference in how drivers race each other which stands out more for Raikkonen than anything else.

“There’s more people, bigger motorhomes, bigger factories, all these things. All the small details matter much more now than when I started. But I think the driving part hasn’t really changed that much.

Today’s drivers push the rules harder, Raikkonen believes
“The rules have changed, some cars being faster, some slower, because of the rule changes from year to year. But honestly if it’s a five seconds difference, you don’t really feel it. It’s not much. It’s a lot on the watch but when you go around, it’s like it’s the same. [From] qualifying to race you don’t lose that much because we are on full tanks but it doesn’t change the life.

“In the earlier days maybe the racing itself was a bit more fair. If somebody was there [alongside], you didn’t kind of push him off. Sometimes, yes, but that was maybe different then.”

But in characteristic Raikkonen fashion, he isn’t about to wax lyrical about how different today’s cars feel compared to their predecessors.

“Obviously the cars are now very big but because you go from year to year, you lose the reference. Now if we go and drive the mid-2000 or whatever, those cars, they feel a lot different for sure.

“But if I tell you that they were a lot different I would bullshit because your memory plays a game. I don’t know – was it better or it’s now better? It’s what it is.”

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Author information

Dieter Rencken
Dieter Rencken has held full FIA Formula 1 media accreditation since 2000, during which period he has reported from over 300 grands prix, plus...
Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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33 comments on “Raikkonen on his surprise debut 20 years ago and how drivers race each other harder now”

  1. Great interview, thanks. I consider myself a Kimi-fan but never knew about the karting mechanic career he had in mind!

  2. For who those doesn’t know Peter de Bruijn:

    World Karting Champion Peter de Bruijn
    His long lasting career as tuner for CRG factory made Peter one of the most experienced and innovative engineers in karting. After working for KalìKart and CRG, Peter de Bruijn decided to use all his experience to create a new team at the end of 1997, using Gillard chassis and Parilla engines with two exceptional drivers: unforgotten Lotta Hellberg, one of the most successful lady kart drivers in karting history, and young Kimi Raikkonen, the one that would later become Formula 1 World Champion with Ferrari.
    During his 20 year career as a driver, and 25 years as team owner, Peter de Bruijn has achieved every major karting championship, including the World Championship in 1980 ahead of Formula 1 icon Ayrton Senna, and the World Championship in 2005 with Oliver Oakes

  3. I still remember the time Räikkönen said in an interview that he couldn’t imagine being in Formula 1 past his 30th birthday…

  4. Always been a fan of Kimi, well its hard not too, this is worth a watch if you dont know about Spa 2002 qualifying, remember watching it at the time thinking ‘Jeez, hes crazy’.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mE1ZvOF8Vks

    1. Lol, wrong link, that one is Kimi lawnmower racing, this is the link I meant.

      https://youtu.be/-eSE9c2iZus

      1. If Kimi tried that today he would get reprimanded for something, and get penalty points on his superlicence.. probably for having balls which are too big.

  5. “Narrowly missed the 2005 title” as in Alonso sealed it with 2 races to spare? He was doomed halfway through the season, it wasn’t that close in the end.

    I love Kimi tho I’ve always felt that he was more spectacular in his McLaren days than anything after it. Maybe his fondness of Michelin tyre has something to do with it.

    1. @fer-no65 If people say such things like Seb “fought Mercedes hard” or even “narrowly missed” the 2017 and 2018 titles so why not? It’s still behind in the absurdity scale.

      1. @rodewulf the 2017 and 2018 seasons could be said to have been closer than the 2005 season was.

        Back in 2005, Kimi never managed to lead the World Drivers Championship, and never really ever got close to leading it. The only time that the points difference between Kimi and whomever was leading the WDC was below 10 points was at the first race of the 2005 season, and Alonso fairly quickly built a gap over Kimi after that.

        By the seventh round of the season (the European GP), or roughly a third of the way in, Alonso was 32 points clear of Kimi – so Alonso could have had three back to back DNFs and, even if Kimi won the next three races back to back, Alonso would still have been leading the championship. To that end, Alonso later claimed that both he and Renault actually took it slightly easier in the latter part of the 2005 season and spent most of the latter part of the season just managing the gap to Kimi – though there may have been an element of showing off with those claims.

        By contrast, Vettel lead the WDC in both 2017 and 2018 and, in 2017, the points difference between Vettel and Hamilton was, proportionally, smaller than the relative gap between Kimi and Alonso in 2005. The MP4/20 might have been fast, but the pace was useless when the reliability wasn’t there – and, if Alonso’s claims weren’t just a case of him bragging about his exploits, then maybe the R25 was closer in performance to the MP4/20 than perhaps first thought.

        1. anon
          Converting to current points system, Alonso beat Raikkonen 324-286 (+38 pts. difference) for the title in the 2005 season. Vettel lost the WDC to Hamilton in 2017 by 46 points and after a strong two-thirds of the next season followed his and Ferrari’s disastrous last part of 2018, in which he lost the title by 88 points despite his team closing the gap to Mercedes, offering an almost equally strong machinery. After the 2018 United States Grand Prix, with 3 races still remaining, the WDC was almost mathematically settled, Hamilton 70 points ahead Vettel with 75 still left in dispute. As of the 2005 Belgium Grand Prix, also with 3 races still remaining, the WDC was considerably more undetermined, Alonso 111 points versus 86 points for Raikkonen, 15 points difference with 30 still possible for anyone to achieve. It’s an evidence of a stronger battle, but there’s more:

          Back in 2005, Kimi never managed to lead the World Drivers Championship, and never really ever got close to leading it. The only time that the points difference between Kimi and whomever was leading the WDC was below 10 points was at the first race of the 2005 season, and Alonso fairly quickly built a gap over Kimi after that.

          Now, I know Lewis fans fetichise with the idea that Vettel/Ferrari were a big threat and that their 2017 and 2018 WDC and WCC were extremely hard fought, but they forget that by the time Vettel was leading the championship and the Ferrari car was as strong or even stronger a little bit than Mercedes’, even then all we had was a promise of a title contender going to the wire, what doesn’t need to be further remembered that it didn’t materialised. Kimi’s challenge against Fernando in 2005, despite also dying out in the last few races, was able to keep some strength a little longer. Close to the last third of the 2005 season we saw Kimi winning 3 out of 4 races, 4 of the 6 last races of the championship excluding the very last one, in China. Fernando was burning his buffering zone after building a solid points advantage, of course, but there’s an upward trend by his rival instead of a downward sloped one, like Seb against Lewis. It makes for a less anti-climatic end of the WDC, even if both were settled at the same point towards the end.

          By the seventh round of the season (the European GP), or roughly a third of the way in, Alonso was 32 points clear of Kimi – so Alonso could have had three back to back DNFs and, even if Kimi won the next three races back to back, Alonso would still have been leading the championship. To that end, Alonso later claimed that both he and Renault actually took it slightly easier in the latter part of the 2005 season and spent most of the latter part of the season just managing the gap to Kimi – though there may have been an element of showing off with those claims.

          Which is?

          By contrast, Vettel lead the WDC in both 2017 and 2018 and, in 2017, the points difference between Vettel and Hamilton was, proportionally, smaller than the relative gap between Kimi and Alonso in 2005. The MP4/20 might have been fast, but the pace was useless when the reliability wasn’t there – and, if Alonso’s claims weren’t just a case of him bragging about his exploits, then maybe the R25 was closer in performance to the MP4/20 than perhaps first thought.

          Here comes an interesting part hardly talked through by some fans out there. The WCC in 2005 was actually very hardly fought, only settled in the last race. In fact, McLaren even managed to break ahead of Renault 164-162 as late as the Brazilian GP, two races still remaining. This, combined with the unreliabilty that plagued Raikkonen and Montoya a few times that year, proves the point of the MP4/20 being considerably faster than the RS25 (of couse this part is well known). Thus, even too much unrealiable, the MP4/20 brought nothing less than 10 wins for McLaren in 2005, as Raikkonen himself had the same number of wins than Alonso (7-7) despite not being champion, and adding more 3 victories for Montoya we come to a not too shabby double digits GP 1st places; while Fisichella, Alonso’s teammate, only managed to win once, what amounts to 8 wins for Renault. If McLaren had successfully prevented reliability issues that year, they could’ve had a nearly dominant car, and it would likely build up a way tighter WDC decision. And about the last part of your comment, just recalling it:

          if Alonso’s claims weren’t just a case of him bragging about his exploits, then maybe the R25 was closer in performance to the MP4/20 than perhaps first thought.

          This is just you trying to project Sir Still-I-Whine’s sandbagger mentality (taught by Toto, not forgetting) on Alonso, but failing miserably in the process. The power of 2005 McLaren car was there for everyone to see, even taking blown engines into the account, with Renault being second best but close. They had more wins and finished the WCC just 9 points behind (Renault 191-182 McLaren), despite having a DSQ and two GPs out for Montoya in which they had to find stand-in drivers. Of course you may still try to say that Fisichella was way worse than Montoya, like today Perez is a terrible driver and Bottas is a solid number 2 kind of rubbish. But then it’d be only walk around in cricles and making ad hoc excuses that would be easily refuted. So Alonso wasn’t just “bragging about his exploits”, he was right in his analysis of relative strengths of cars and drivers like he usually is, probably with the exception of him talking about his own performance. Then he may become more biased, but even though this year he admitted his struggles early this season until he got back to top form, what was very noble of him.

      2. @rodewulf

        Ferrari were the fastest in 2017 and 2018, it was a hard fought win by Mercedes and Lewis.

        Get with the program!

        1. @jaymenon10
          Ferrari were the fastest in 2017 and 2018, it was a hard fought win by Mercedes and Lewis.
          Here’s a claim never proven, never explained or even supported by any arguments. Just shouted at any place anytime.
          Get with the program!
          Just a clownish finish for a useless comment posted in a repetitive way.

    2. He missed the title due to the woeful reliability of his McLaren if I recall. The title was a lot closer than the points give it credit for.

  6. Take a shot every time Kimi says “for sure”.

    1. @hadws And your average person would end up drunk if it’s beer.

      1. You’d probably pass out, even if it was a shot of coffee every time!

  7. It’s really quite nice to get a proper interview with Kimi as it’s really rare he ever gives much. He’s a fascinating guy.

    1. Lopes da Silva
      7th August 2021, 11:11

      I undersign this comment.

  8. 1 WDC only doesn’t do him justice. One of the best I’ve seen race. I really wish he could’ve snatched at least one title with McLaren. His Lotus comeback was mega as well.

    light cars, V10 engines, tyre war-era rubber and unlimited testing

    Can’t go wrong with that. Imagine rubber war with teams free for picking whichever they want. Or the weekend tyre selection a mix between 3 different suppliers. Could be nice.

    Nice piece. Thoroughly enjoyed.

    1. @niefer it sounds nice when you’re not the one paying the bills for it – not to mention that, from what some ex-engineers have said, that tyre war could really hurt the smaller teams, with more than one tyre company either deliberately not helping, or in some cases actively hindering, the smaller customers.

      1. @anon – If we are to dream with nicey things, what about an egalitarian F1?

        Ex-engineers and whoever said the same about unlimited testing and now look at how it panned out. So, please, spare me from this fiddle-faddle.

        1. @niefer the problems come when those dreams tend to obscure the problems of the past that we prefer to forget to fit in with your preconceptions, and when you use it to create an image of the past that only ever exists in your head.

          The major tyre manufacturers of that era were not shy about favouring a major manufacturer at the expense of a smaller team – you might dream of “an egalitarian F1”, but those tyre manufacturers quite often helped to perpetuate the sort of anti-egalitarian measures that you rail against now.

          1. @anon – Aren’t your preconceptions clouding your judgement instead?
            I pointed a different solution regarding tyres from what it was and from what it is nowadays. But you read “tyre war” and started the strafe from the hip.

            And by the way, simply flogging this “manufacturer isn’t shy of favouring some” does not automatically clears a supplier monopoly from doing the same.

            Letting all teams choose which available compounds to wear each round from any supplier – and in any format of availability from countless possibilities – would be way harder to fool the sporting spirit than back then, don-cha think?

            Finally, I guess I expressed myself poorly at the first sentence, as I actually mock those “egalitarian” talks and measures simply because they do anything but equilibrate things.

          2. @niefer
            Let’s prevent a monopoly to form by maintaing the current monopoly enforced. The logic of guys like anon makes RaceFans a source for case study.

  9. Nice interview. He almost seemed talkative. Probably better to read than listen what he says. I like his honesty and no BS line. Maybe his early life as poor is why he is continuing to race now. Just can’t miss the opportunity.

    Relevant points with the better racing from harsher penalties. Goes with the stewards tougher line, and the ‘pay-for-damages’ cost cap discussion. Although I’m beginning to sense he’s about to ‘do a Coulthard’ and get cranky on track as the career nears the end. The crash in Austria was hmm for example. Let’s see the following races. They will surely be his last.

    1. @balue

      We don’t know how much effort it took to extract this. Perhaps the interview took 10 hours :)

      Seriously though, I think that this topic is one that Kimi is happy to talk about.

  10. Based on Raikkonen’s remarkable showing in Formula Renault, the Robertsons persuaded Peter Sauber to give him a Formula 1 test.

    About that line. I don’t know the absolute truth but what I’ve heard and read from different sources is that Peter Sauber didn’t want Kimi. He was truly persuaded by Robertsons, Salo and other Kimi’s counterparts. Peter’s no 1 choice was Heidfeld and without Robertsons and the others Kimi wasn’t even going to drive that Sauber.

  11. Ah, when he lost the title due to the McLaren disassembling itself during races, like when his front suspension failed at full speed, can’t remember the race.

    And I don’t know why you bother him with interviews, he knows what he’s doing.

    1. Didn’t he flat spot the hell out of his tire and the excessive vibration obliterated his suspension?

      I don’t recall it just spontaneously disintegrating without cause.

  12. Some fellow commenters are discussing hard above about the 2005 championship. Sure Alonso had the advantage but honestly I believe the pack Kimi-Mclaren-Mercedes was the fastest that year, although not reliable. It doesn’t mean the championship was close, though.
    I can easily imagine Kimi as a triple champion having won the 2003, 2005 and 2007 championships.
    Unfortunately he became a little bit less quick from the 2007 tyre monopoly onwards. He didn’t adapt as well as others. Still a fascinating driver, though.

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