Last year I had the pleasure of being at the Rally of France. I enjoyed some great stages with my friends and saw Kimi up close and personal. Both in and out of the car. Unfortunately he crashed on day 2 and opted not to start on the final day to the disappointment of many.
Fast forward to 2011 and Kimi has done 2 stages of the rally de France showing unusual good pace for the morning runs. On the way to SS3 he is warming his tires. Right in front of him is Henning Solberg who is warming his brakes. Short story short, Kimi misjudges Hennings intentions and speeds up while Henning brakes hard. Result – broken front suspension and his Citroen DS3 in the ditch.
So Kimis chances for a great result in France was over almost before it begun. Taken out by a freak incident. He can of course start under the super rally rules the next day. But just like last year, he opts to not start at all and left on a plane that same evening.
For those who read my review of Rally France from last year will remember that I started drawing some conclusions from Kimi retiring without really needing to: https://desdirodeabike.wordpress.com/2010/10/05/rally-france-2010-que-veux-tu-kimi/
This year it is easy to do the same. And even more so now with serious rumors on a Kimi-Williams connection. Since Kimis rally was cut so short, I have decided to let this review touch on the aspects of Kimis possible return to Formula 1.
A MIDFIELD TEAM – REALLY?
When Kimi visited the Williams team a few weeks ago, a lot of people were surprised. Surely this cannot be about a drive for them? Williams has been on a steady decline over the past few years. And at present it is a midfield team at best. These are the facts. But they have serious intentions of moving to the front again. But so does every team, right? Sure, but I dare say that there is a bit more weight behind a team led by Frank Williams that has 9 constructors championships and 7 driver championships. One more constructor title than McLaren in fact. And the weight also comes in the shape of recent staff and sponsor changes.
For one they seem to have solved their money flow problems by landing some solid new sponsors. Much helped by hiring driver Pastor Maldonado that also brought in PDVSA, the Venezuelan state-owned oil company as a major sponsor. Their technical team have undergone several key changes as well. The most significant is Technical director Sam Michael and Chief aerodynamic Jon Tomlinson leaving the team. They are talented people but they seem to have gotten stuck in a rut and in such times a change of personnel is the best idea.
In comes Mike Coughlan as Chief engineer. He was the Chief designer for McLaren from 2002-2007. And although he is now mostly known for the Ferrari spy-gate in 2007, this period of time was also when Kimi drove for McLaren. So they know each other extremely well. It is no secret that Kimi worked very well with the McLaren crew. Only the autocratic rule of Ron Dennis created some run-ins with the free spirit of Kimi in those days.
But Coughlan is a guy who have seen and knows exactly what Kimi can do. And he knows how he works and what his preferences are. Something like that is worth gold – especially when it comes to a unique driver like Kimi that have relatively unusal car preferences to do his magic on track. Something that Ferrari post-Todt was not prepared to accomodate for. Not until they had to. (Kimi uses the rear of the car to minimize steering input and thus basically get around the turn faster. This type of driving requires incredible reflexes and some extraordinary sense of the cars behaviour.)
Two other significant and fairly new additions to the Williams staff this year is Jason Somerville as Head of aerodynamics. He has previously worked for Toyota and worked for Renault before joining Williams. The other is Mark Gillan as Chief operations engineer who also previously worked for Toyota. Williams was in need of some fresh blood and seem to have made some very specific aquirements staff-wise. And the next logic step would be to hire a high-profile driver that is known for pushing the envelope in cars that are less than the class of the field. And if they could even get a world champion, it would be quite a coup.
And let us not forget the switch from Cosworth to Renault engines next year. The Renault engine may be slightly down on power compared to the Ferrari and Mercedes engine but it is widely regarded as the most driveable. Due to a better torque range.
BUT KIMI SAID HE WOULD ONLY DRIVE FOR A TOP-TEAM?
Yes, he did. In 2009. This is 2011. He has not driven an F1 car for 2 years and we only kid ourselves if we think a top team like McLaren or Red Bull would just let Kimi walk into one of their cars after a 2 year sabbatical as they would view it. Your stock in F1 drops quickly if you are away for a year or more. Besides, there are no seats available for 2012 in the top teams anyway. But in 2013 there will be..
But why would Kimi go to Williams at all? Well, first of all the Pirelli tires are an unknown for Kimi. A year in the Williams will surely get him up to speed in coping with and preserving them. He is notorious for being a smooth driver that is easy on the tires. But the biggest reason for me as I see it, is that Williams will be a stepping stone for a top seat in 2013.
Also, driving for a team like Williams would take a whole lot of expectation off Kimis shoulders. Imagine if he had stepped into the Red Bull cockpit in 2012. Everyone would be on his back if he didnt start winning almost right away. One can pratically see the headlines already. Nobody would expect such a thing in the FW34, as people know what positions its predecessors has been taking home the last couple of years. All Kimi really needs to do is to soundly outperform his teammate. If he does so in a convincing manner, then I propose that he will be able to pick and choose again from top teams for 2013. This might very well be the plan he has in mind.
Make no mistake – if he does sign for Williams, it will be no more than a one year contract with an option for renewal.
WHAT DOES WILLIAMS GET OUT OF IT?
Oh, a whole lot I would say. Kimis return to Formula 1 would spark a media coverage frenzy that Williams haven’t experienced since they last won a race back in 2004. Everyone will want to have a piece of the story of the enigmatic world champion making a comeback with the Williams team. And their sponsors will drool over the extra attention. Another side is that the team haven’t had a really competitive top driver since Montoya left in 2004.
Forget the image that Kimi is a turn up and drive kinda guy. This kind of nonsensical rumors occur because of his closed personality. But ask anyone who has worked closely with him and they will all tell you how talented he is in giving very accurate feedback to the engineers and that he works as late as he has to. Kimis incredible car feel is just what Williams want in a driver to get the car they need that will bring them back towards the front.
So Williams will (hopefully) get results they could only dream of with Barrichello and Maldonado. And Kimi gets one year of experience that is more than enough to get up to speed with the Pirellis and racing an F1 car again. Not to mention it will be a stepping stone to a top team the following year. Win-win.
HOW REALISTIC IS THIS?
James Allen claims that his sources tell him that both the Willams and Raikkonen camp are very keen to do this. And they have gotten as far as talking about practical stuff like how many promotional days he needs to do and so on. James Allen is not always right of course, but he is spot on a lot of times. For instance when it came to Alonso to Ferrari in 2010.
What we do know is that Kimi visited the Williams factory and was shown around by Adam Parr, chairman in Williams. Willams is not saying anything at all about this. And the Robertsons are denying any ongoing negotiations. Just like they did before Kimi went to Ferrari, mind you.
I say there is way too much smoke here to not be a fire as well. I think there is a big chance seeing Kimi drive an F1 car next year. And I also believe there is a semi-long term plan to advance to a top team and drive there for at least 2-3 years.
But of course, knowing Kimi – come December we may just find out that he has decided to go rallying in 2013 😉 So I have given you nothing less than my personal take on the situation and rumors. In the end it is up to Kimi. But my belief is that his visit to the factory was to show Kimi the seriousness of Williams intentions for a great car in 2012. Show him the facilities, the planned staff changes, what kind of people he could have at his side on race weekends. That sort of stuff. To ease Kimis mind that he at least wont be fighting at the back of the field.
WHAT ABOUT KIMIS OTHER OPTIONS?
Lets talk rally. Sure he could do rally in 2012. But this would mean another year as a privateer where a big part of the expenses are coming out of Kimis own pockets. As it is in the WRC right now, even some of the best drivers in the world does not have a paid factory seat. So what chance does a second year rookie like Kimi have? As it stands, it will be like this for a couple of years. New/old manufacturers are starting to get back to the WRC, so the future is brighter. I just cant see that Kimi will want to pay his own way in rally for very long. On the other hand, if he does, say 3 years of F1, things might have changed a lot in the WRC by then, if he wants to pick it up where he left. He might even get a paid seat then.
And the Le Mans test? He did indeed test a Le Mans prototype at Peugeot not long ago, so it would be fair to say that he is interested in doing that as well. But Le Mans is basically just one big race once a year with a couple of support races around it. It is absolutely an option, but what would he do the rest of the year? To flip it around – the Formula 1 calendar does have a 2 week gap between the Canada and Europe race and in between there is the Le Mans 24 hour race. Technically that is possible to do.
What about NASCAR? I think Kimi could do really well in NASCAR and I would not be sad at all if he went all out for a career in that category. But we have heard nothing of the kind since his 2 outings back in May. That is clearly not the plan for next year, or else we would have heard something from across the pond. Plenty of time to do that though if he wishes. Even after a few years in F1.
Of course there is also retirement. I have seen no signs of any intentions in that direction. In my opinion, Kimi knows he is far too young to hang up any of his helmets. I think he wants to get back into Formula 1 because it is a steady paycheck while doing something he loves. Okay, the paycheck will be significantly smaller than his last outing in F1. But nobody is getting that kind of money anymore anyway. And he is aware of that. He will probably bring a few sponsors of his own. Add to that some new deals and appearances with sponsors and it is easy to add some substantial cash to his paycheck. One thing is for sure, it will be far more lucrative than his 2011 rally campaign where he had to cut Australia mostly due to costs.
But can Williams really afford Raikkonen? With Kimis name I think it would be relatively (and I stress relatively) easy to drum up some extra millions. The latest word is that Williams are trying to finance at least some of Kimis salary from the Qatar National Bank:
True or not, I dont think a one year salary will be a problem. For a team like Williams in their current position to get a driver like Kimi in their stall, you make it happen somehow.
However, I think this is far more than chasing after a bigger paycheck. Kimi wanted to try rally and he did. 2010 was paid in full with Ferrari money to spare. This year is a different story. To be honest I think Kimi thought he would have been a little closer to the front by now and I also think he never imagined he would have to put a privateer team together to go rallying in 2011. Its not that I think he is disillusioned or anything. I just believe he has now done something he has always wanted to do and had a blast with that. And he will probably return to rallying after he has done some alledged years in F1.
He also knows he is not getting any younger and if he wants to go back, the time is now.
2 years away is acceptable and at 32 he is still in his prime. Many have drawn some conclusions between Raikkonens possible return with Schumachers comeback. But one must remember that Schumacher is a full decade older. Kimis talent is showcased best on a Formula 1 track and with a Williams deal he will have a big say in how much promotional work he has to do. And I suspect he will take time to do a couple of rallies inbetween races as well.
So we will see. Either I am wrong or I am right in my assumptions. In the end only Kimis own words will shed some light. We may have to wait until the end of the year for those. I do however firmly believe that going to Williams for one year is a very smart move if Kimi is to make a comeback. It is a serious team clearly on the way up. And he needs to get in now before the big expected driver reshuffle in 2013.
Consider the latest news that Williams have made a breakthrough in understanding their car: http://www.autosport.com/news/report.php/id/95033
Mark Gillan seems to already be earning his paycheck. Some strong performances in the last few races will only cement my belief in a team on the way up. And Kimis belief as well.
Images © Andrew Ferraro/LAT Photographic, Totofman Prod., GEPA Pictures/McKlein