Close the pubs, hide the champagne and barricade the breweries. Kimi Raikkonen is going rallying! The man who prefers to down his celebratory bubbly on the podium rather than spray it is set for a full World Rally Championship campaign in 2010 at the wheel of a top-spec Citroen C4 WRC, partnering fellow tousle-haired Scandinavian Petter Solberg in the Citroen Junior Team. Never before in history has someone won both the Formula 1 Drivers’ Championship and the WRC, so what are the Finn’s chances of making motorsport history?
Better than you’d think, I say. First off, let’s talk about the man himself. Behind the drunkenness, the ice creams in the pit lane and the yacht sunbathing fifteen minutes after an engine blow-up, I believe there lies a very quick and committed driver. Raikkonen may have been branded a waste of space after some lacklustre performances early on in 2009, but in the light of the failure of first Luca Badoer and second Giancarlo Fisichella to do anything at all with the ’09 Ferrari, Kimi’s efforts (and, let’s not forget, those of Felipe Massa) in just getting the thing into the top three look all the more remarkable. Remember as well that this guy pipped Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso to the 2007 crown and pushed Michael Schumacher all the way early on in his career. He may appear to like a drink, but to claim this has affected his dedication on-track is a little unfair in my book.
What about the car he’ll be using? Well, I’m still not sure about this one. Okay, the C4 must be at least a little bit good if it’s capable of winning both competitors’ and constructors’ world titles, but I reckon the Ford Focus is still a superior machine. If the Citroen really was akin to the male dog’s reproductive organs, then why weren’t Ogier, Rautenbach and Novikov (and Petter Solberg for that matter) blowing the ‘second tier’ Fords of Henning Solberg and Matt Wilson into the weeds? The talents of Sebastien Loeb, coupled with the way Citroen’s rally cars are pretty much built around their French star driver, perhaps over-state the capabilities of the C4.
More crucially, though, with this being the Citroen Junior Team we can’t be certain that Raikkonen and Solberg will be getting machinery of equal specification to the all-conquering Loeb. And should the situation arise, would the former McLaren and Ferrari man really be allowed to take wins or would he have to slow up and aid his teammate’s quest for a seventh world championship? That could well be a talking point later on in the year as both Raikkonen and Solberg get to grips with the C4.
Speaking of gathering experience, one of the most fascinating things to watch will be how the Finn adapts to the unique challenges of rallying, not least producing pace notes and dealing with significant surface and weather changes. In this regard I would contest that he’ll do pretty well. Motoring journalist Russell Bulgin, in a much more interesting and beautiful article than I could ever hope to write, followed Ayrton Senna for a day as the Brazilian tried his hand at driving a number of different rally cars in a Welsh forest. Bulgin noted that, after a cautious start, Senna very, very quickly got the knack of driving on gravel, going faster and faster as the day wore on.
What this says to me is that after years of driving round a multitude of circuits in a range of cars built to a number of different sets of regulations, Kimi Raikkonen will be somewhat used to dealing with change. In other words, when he takes his C4 WRC out into the forest on the test stage for the first time, he’ll be drawing on the same set of skills he uses when he takes a freshly-built Ferrari F1 car out for its first tentative laps round Fiorano. The magnitude of difference may be a little larger this time round, but the 2007 F1 World Champion will definitely know how to work round it.
The 2010 WRC entry list is looking pretty danged good, with Sebastien Loeb, Mikko Hirvonen, Dani Sordo, Jari-Mari Latvala, Petter Solberg, Ken Block and now Kimi Raikkonen. I know it’s a massive cliché, but out of that lot there really can only be one winner: rallying itself. There might be faster blonde-haired, blue-eyed Finns out there next year, but none of them will attract as much attention as Kimi. And if Ken Block manages to pull together this deal to run a Ford Focus, then the WRC is laughing. Block might not be the quickest driver out there, but for an all-out showman capable of holding the extreme sports and US markets captive you can’t get much better.
For the first time in as long as I can remember, then, the World Rally Championship is going to feature a genuine international, Grade A sporting superstar. Stop someone on the street, show them a picture of Sebastien Loeb and they will ask you if he’s Arsenal’s new reserve goalkeeper. Put a mugshot of Kimi Raikkonen in front of them and they’ll tell you straight off that he’s the crazy racing driver who loves beer. Public awareness of rally driving aside, however, this is going to be a very, very interesting season. We’ve seen the likes of Valentino Rossi and Robert Kubica do okay on one-off outings in rally cars, but this is something completely different. Raikkonen has a whole year, fully-funded in a top-notch car alongside an excellent co-driver, which will give him plenty of seat time and a real chance to push himself in the car using all the skills he’s honed in his very successful career so far. I’ve no doubt he’ll do well, but whether Citroen will let him trouble Sebastien Loeb is a different matter.