In defence (or mitigation) of Kimi

There has been a lot of talk recently about what Kimi Raikkonen is going to do next season, in light of what could be described as a less than successful season in the World Rally Championship. 2010 has been a year punctuated by offs and crashes for the former Formula 1 World Champion, who hasn’t set the rally world alight in the way some thought he might. I want to argue here that in fairness to Kimi, he has faced one heck of a learning curve this season. Incidentally, I do believe the vast majority of points I’m going to make are equally applicable to American Ken Block, who recently secured his first WRC points in Spain.

If you look at all of the ‘top’ WRC drivers – Loeb, Ogier, Hirvonen, Latvala etc – you’ll see that each and every one of them has been driving rally cars since their formative years. Virtually all of these guys started out in low-power, low-tech two-wheel drive cars – in the case of Latvala, it was a Renault Clio on the British Championship, for Loeb, it was a Citroen Saxo over in France. Heck, back in the day Colin McRae did some of his first events in a Talbot Sunbeam. Anyone who has even dared to try the ‘let’s jump in a World Rally Car on my seventeenth birthday and see what happens’ route (ref. Evgeniy Novikov, Andreas Mikkelsen*) has soon found themselves crashing an awful lot of cars with a relatively limited increase in pace.

What I’m getting at here is that Kimi Raikkonen has been trying in one season to develop a level of skill and car control that the guys he’s up against have been honing for the best part of a decade. With only a couple of rallies in a Fiat Punto S2000 – not by any means a slow or cheap car – under his belt beforehand, Kimi’s gone straight in to rallying in the fastest rally car in the world against the best drivers in the world. The fact he has even managed to score points on a couple of events and set some semi-respectable times along the way is nothing short of miraculous. Just because the WRC gets smaller entries than it used to doesn’t mean it’s got any slower.

I guess the question that should be being asked, then, is who thought it was a good idea to let Raikkonen loose in a split-new Citroen C4 WRC in his first full season of rallying? If it was the man himself, keen to test himself at the highest level after becoming disillusioned with F1, then fair enough. If it was the decision of sponsors eager for some quick media exposure, then I’d certainly be asking questions of the knowledge of whoever decided to put him there. Yes, circuit racing and rallying both involve driving quickly and yes, the skill sets for learning will already have been in place, but F1 and the WRC are two very, very different disciplines – not a transition than can be made of an afternoon.

That’s not to say circuit drivers can’t go rallying. Robert Kubica is going about it in exactly the right way, doing events on his free weekends in a Renault Clio. He’s starting with a slower (albeit brand new) car, entering low-profile events and learning as he goes along (and by all accounts having a whale of a time in the process). In this way, Kubica is able to learn the ins and outs of rallying in an environment where he can make mistakes without getting a slating from the press and the fans. If or when the Pole feels the time is right to make the step up to top-flight rallying, he’ll already have a good understanding of how rallying ‘works’ and will stand a far better chance of scoring respectable if not stunning results from the off. Similarly, former IndyCar pilot Michael Jourdain is slowly getting to grips with a loose surface in a production class Mitsubishi.

As to whether a top rally driver could jump in an F1 car and be on the pace right away, I doubt it. Sébastien Loeb – a man renowned for being able to maintain a consistently quick pace for a long time without crashing – set solid but not stunning times when he tested an F1 car a few seasons back. Colin McRae was apparently very quick when he had a go of a Jordan in the mid 90s, but you don’t have to be Ross Brawn to figure out what would have happened had a man with McRae’s track record tried to maintain that pace for a full race distance.

In my view, Kimi Raikkonen has been in a no-win situation all year. Go at his own pace and end up a laughing stock being beaten by the more experienced drivers in production and two-wheel drive cars, or try to keep up with the leaders and crash every time. It is not my aim here to say whose fault this was, just to point out that it’s been a very tough year for the Ice Man in extremely difficult circumstances. Making the transition from one top-flight motor sport discipline to another needs two things: stoicism on the part of the driver and the provision of a supportive, low-pressure learning environment. There are enough competitors out there with the former, but whether sponsors are prepared to wait while the driver gives up several years of their career to go through the latter is another matter.

*Mikkelsen has since made a tactical regroup and has been rewarded for his increased maturity with some excellent results in the Intercontinental Rally Challenge in a Ford Fiesta S2000.

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