How F1’s greenest debutant defied his doubters and left as its most experienced racer

2021 F1 season review

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Kimi Raikkonen has called time on a Formula 1 career during which he became a multiple grand prix winner, the 2007 world champion – and the most prolific race starter in the history of the sport.

But the sport’s most experienced driver arrived in F1 as a youth whose inexperience triggered howls of disapproval from senior figures who feared he would prove a liability on the track.

The FIA president Max Mosley and McLaren’s team principal Ron Dennis were vocal in their opposition to Raikkonen’s signing by Sauber for 2001, after he had impressed in several test showings. Dennis said he was “completely against” the idea of the 21-year-old stepping into F1 after years in junior single-seater racing and just over a quarter of a century of car racing starts to his name.

Mosley even appeared to use his presidential power to promote his position on the matter.

“Unfortunately, the F1 Commission doesn’t always do as I tell them, despite speculation to the contrary,” he was quoted as saying after the FIA’s F1 Commission voted 23-1 in favour of giving Raikkonen the superlicence he needed to race for Sauber.

Nick Heidfeld, Kimi Raikkonen, Sauber, Hinwil, 2001
Raikkonen joined Heidfeld for 2001 season at Sauber
“I do not believe that they adopted a defensible position in giving an inexperienced driver like Raikkonen a licence. It is quite wrong, given that we have strict criteria for graduation into F1.”

Following the four tests in 2000, which ended with Raikkonen being just a second off the pace set by Jordan’s Jarno Trulli at Barcelona, there was another 13 days of running across five tests at five different circuits before his debut.

In the first of those at Ferrari’s Fiorano test track he outpaced team mate Nick Heidfeld, who was driving a newer-spec car. At a lengthy Barcelona test contested by 25 drivers he was 12th fastest, 1.836 seconds slower than the pace set by Ferrari’s Rubens Barrichello.

The season-opening Australian Grand Prix was going to be another challenge entirely, and expectations of Raikkonen were bandied around going into the weekend. Some thought he would live up to the hype, albeit as much as a driver could given Sauber’s expected position in F1’s pecking order, while others still held major doubts over whether he was qualified enough to be a grand prix driver. Raikkonen was in no way daunted by his debut – his team found him sleeping under a table 10 minutes before the pit lane opened on race day, which would have done nothing to win over his detractors.

The previous day Raikkonen qualified 13th, 0.378 seconds and three positions behind Heidfeld. He was ahead of the rest of F1’s young superstars apart from Juan Pablo Montoya, who in was a quarter of a second faster in a Williams which would prove a contender for race wins.

His debut season didn’t always go smoothly, as at Monza
A slow start on Sunday meant Raikkonen lost several places off the line, but cars going off through the first sector meant he was able to recover somewhat and he then pulled off a clever dummy pass on Jenson Button at turn six to get back into 13th.

He was down to 17th by the end of lap one, however, and it took him until lap five to regain 13th. This time it was all down to drivers ahead retiring.

Two of those retirees, Ralf Schumacher and Jacques Villeneuve, had a major crash that led to an early Safety Car period (and caused the death of a marshal at the scene). On the restart afterwards, Raikkonen was able to pass Jean Alesi and then on the lap after overtook Button again to move into the top 10.

Approaching half-distance he rose up to eighth by going past Benetton’s Giancarlo Fisichella and then benefitting from a suspension failure on Mika Hakkinen’s McLaren.

Raikkonen departed from his first ever F1 pit stop in ninth, and another two retirements promoted him to seventh by the chequered flag. Then, Sauber made a protest against Olivier Panis for overtaking under yellow flags and the subsequent penalty dropped him to seventh. As a result, Raikkonen scored a point on debut in sixth. It guaranteed the temporary FIA superlicence that he had been granted to race was going to take him on to the next grand prix, and beyond.

That sixth place would have come to eight points in today’s money, and under the modern system he would have scored 66 points in a rookie season which actually yielded nine. In the years since, only four true rookies have matched or surpassed that: Lewis Hamilton and Heikki Kovalainen in 2007, Timo Glock a year later and Alex Albon in 2019.

Raikkonen bowed out as F1’s most experienced driver
His points-scoring prowess helped Sauber come fourth in the manufacturers’ standings for the first time, which remains their best season outside of their BMW era. That achievement helped Raikkonen flip opinions of himself and made him a target signing for rival teams – even among those who had doubted his readiness for F1. By September, a year on from his first test and still with several races of his rookie season to go, Dennis had got Raikkonen out of his Sauber contract and into a McLaren for 2002.

Two championship near-misses followed and then, after he switched to Ferrari, Raikkonen delivered on his obvious title-winning potential. Following a two-year absence triggered somewhat by circumstances, he returned to perform giant-killing feats with Lotus (he remained a title-contender until his Abu Dhabi Grand Prix-winning drive in 2012) and take a final victory for Ferrari in 2018.

Fittingly, he brought his career to an end where it started, at the Alfa Romeo team run by Sauber. No longer a newcomer, but the driver who in Germany last year surpassed Rubens Barrichello as the most experienced racers in the history of the sport.

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Author information

Ida Wood
Often found in junior single-seater paddocks around Europe doing journalism and television commentary, or dabbling in teaching photography back in the UK. Currently based...

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23 comments on “How F1’s greenest debutant defied his doubters and left as its most experienced racer”

  1. Big Hamilton fan, but love the Kimster. It’s just that brilliant demeanour of his

    It’s actually best shown in the car commercial of he’s in with his missus, when the young upstart sees The Iceman and immediately wants a race – to which of course Kimi gives him one of his typical looks.

    Best was that Hamilton pit lane fiasco at Canada 08′!!! Dozy Hamilton hadn’t realised there was a pit lane red light and went into the back of Kimi (in fairness neither did Rosberg, who went into the back of Lewis – so it could be just a lack of experience). The cool Fin just got out of the car calmly pointed the red light to Hamilton and went off into the pits shaking his head. Classic!!

  2. The most laconic of champions. I will miss him.

  3. Two of those retirees, Ralf Schumacher and Jacques Villeneuve, had a major crash that led to an early Safety Car period (and caused the death of a marshal at the scene).

    I guess the man had a name. And just like drivers killed in action his name should be mentioned.
    It’s by the volunteers that f1 still is active.

    1. Jonathan Parkin
      27th December 2021, 14:06

      Graham Beveridge

    2. Rest in peace Graham Beveridge. Never forget.

  4. Jelle van der Meer (@)
    27th December 2021, 14:52

    Will a similar article be written in 12-14 years when Max retires, obviously there are differences but also some similarities:
    * Both caused quite a stir when it was announced they would race F1 the folllowing season
    * Both were young, Kimi at 21 these days maybe not be young but back in 2021 it was for sure. Max being only 17 took it even further to the extend that FIA changed the rules something Max Mosley tried to do back in 2001.
    * Both had very little little lower formula experience before becoming F1 driver but a sponsor very confident in their capabilities.
    * Both won their 1st driver championship in their 7th season with a constructor that didn’t score the most points during the season, Ferrari did win WCC due to Mclaren losing all points due to spygate.
    * Both won their driver championship due to Hamilton’s bad luck in last race (in 2007 last 2 races as Hamilton slides off into gravel on very worn tires at pitlane entry during Chinese GP and had gearbox issues early in the Brazil race dropping him from 2nd to 7th.)

    1. José Lopes da Silva
      28th December 2021, 21:00

      If Max retired by the same age of Schumacher, he would race up to 2040.
      Although he already said he doesn’t want that.

      1. @José Lopes da Silva Your math doesn’t add up.

  5. He was 5-6 years too long in F1.

    1. for sure. should have called it quits after 2014

      1. He should have finished after that brilliant 2018 season. I loved having Kimi around for those Ferrari years, since I started watching F1 the year after he left the sport the first time, and so never really saw him in his peak. He’s still my favourite modern driver.

    2. Not really. He did the right thing. in addition to some records broken with these 6 more years, it was clear that the 2014 changes hurt him and other drivers who performed well with aspirated engines. He did very well in an average Lotus, winning races in 2012 and 2013. If he kept the same regulations in 2014 and was at Ferrari, he would probably be in contention for the title. That probably crossed his mind when he went to Ferrari.

    3. I agree. It is a bit sad to see a big name languish at the back. Just give the seat to some new faces that could be the future stars of the sport

      1. Future stars? equal to Yude Ide or Mazepin? it’s better to see old stars in bad cars than bad new drivers in good cars.

  6. weird article, 50% on a few laps of the very first race, and 50% on the remainder of an entire career. ok, I guess

    1. I quite enjoyed the flashback to his debut. It’s obviously not meant to be a detailed review of his whole career. However, the phrase “a quarter of a century of car racing starts” is a little tortured and really confused me to begin with. I think just saying 23 (or whatever number it was) would have worked better.

  7. I’m not sure how a 21 year old has “years in junior single-seater racing and just over a quarter of a century of car racing starts to his name.”

    1. Threw me off too, but in British terms I guess using century as in cricket – approx 25 runs;

  8. Not sure how many people have noticed, but Kimi wont have the “most experienced” record for long.

    When Fernando finishes 2021 he will have done 5 more races than Kimi

    1. And what a difference there is in attitudes.

  9. I’ll never understand who or what was behind fast tracking him into F1. Why was it so urgent?

    1. Same old reason – auto sport or other sports. When you find some great talent, hire them quick and put them to use else someone else will.

    2. José Lopes da Silva
      28th December 2021, 21:02

      And the same happened with Max Verstappen.

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