Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Has Kimi Raikkonen quit already?

In 2007, after years of unfulfilled promise and misfortune Kimi Raikkonen grabbed his first World Championship in improbable and spectacular fashion. He was expected to win it when he signed for Ferrari and although it looked like that promise was again to be unfulfilled he beat the McLaren duo of Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton by a single point. It was also expected that the flood gates would open for a run of Raikkonen titles; many predicted that he was going to repeat as champion in 2008. However, he has fallen way short of expectations and currently is receiving the worst beating of his career from a teammate. Given the many rumors that persisted that he was retiring, one must ask the questions even though his contract is extended to after 2010, has Raikkonen retired already? Is he suffering from a lack of motivation?

As mentioned, Ferrari recently put an end to the retirement speculation by signing Raikkonen to an extension. Nevertheless, his performance this year looks to be more than a driver simply struggling with the car. Raikkonen has always been a bit of an enigma to me and always needed some external motivation. I felt that he lacked the motivation to work on his car development skills or adjust his driving style, which in my opinion ultimately led to his defeat in 2005 to Alonso and Renault. He again is showing that lack of motivation when it comes to solving how to get the best from his tires. One would think that he would put more effort into testing. It continues to be the case, that his teammates test more frequently and amass more mileage than Raikkonen. This was similar at McLaren. To me this is the difference that makes Alonso a multiple world champion and able to help a struggling Renault win again.

Raikkonen clearly still has the speed to dominate the field as he has posted 10 fastest laps in 2008. If there is a target out there for him to shoot at, I think he can perform in a dominant fashion; but he does not have that now. Raikkonen has all that he ever wanted; he got his dream ride at Ferrari, he has won a championship and Raikkonen makes no secret that he does not live and breath racing and does not want to stay forever. He currently sits fourth in the World championship in a car that is more than capable of winning the title and appears rather uninterested. When Raikkonen has been focused he simply does not make any mistakes. However, in the years in which his motivation and focus is questionable (2006 and 2008) he has made uncharacteristic errors and has crashed out or spun off. If we look at Raikkonen from 2001-2005, the number of crashes and spins for Raikkonen is 6 (for races). In 2006 and 2008, again years that motivation was questionable, he crashed or spun 7 times and 2008 is not over yet. So, in 2 seasons he has spun or crashed more than he ever did in 5 years. What makes these 2 seasons important is that he knew he was off to Ferrari in 2006 while he drove a lackluster McLaren and in 2008 he comes off a championship season and has to quiet rumors about his retirement. In these circumstances it is rather easy to be demotivated. For record, in 2007 he was error free in terms of spins or crashes in races. You can draw some parallels with another Ferrari driver Jody Scheckter, who after years of trying, won the Formula 1 championship in 1979. He quit after a dismal 1980. However, his fall from grace was substantially worse than anything Raikkonen would do.

Raikkonen has received the benefit of the doubt from Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo. I suppose when you win a title you have earned a reprieve. I believe if this was Felipe Massa in the position of not scoring a single point in 4 straight races and having spun off in two of them, and there had been sustained rumors of retirement, which Raikkonen has done, people would have considered it a scandal that Massa was still driving arguable the best car on the grid.

Let us see if Kimi can turn it around because it would be a shame for a driver in his prime years just fluff all that natural talent away.

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