It’s nearly 20 years since a bright-eyed Kimi Raikkonen scored his first championship point on his Formula 1 debut for Sauber. A memorable day for the Finn. However, getting him on the grid that afternoon almost didn’t happen.
With 30 minutes to go before the 2001 Australian Grand Prix, he was nowhere to be seen. There was panic from his team. Could he have done a runner? Did the pressure get to him? Where was he?
His former physiotherapist at Sauber, Josef Leberer, found him asleep in the team villa. He told Kimi that he was just a few minutes away from his first race, to which he replied ‘Oh Josef, let me sleep another five minutes! I’ve never seen this before, and I’ve never seen afterwards.’
He slept for a few more minutes, got up slowly with not a worry in the world, and went on to record a stunning P6 finish. Even in those pressure situations, it is that extreme coolness which sets him apart all these years on.
Raikkonen is equal parts cold and hot. For the best part of two decades, the 40-year-old has exhilarated on the track while remaining an intriguing personality off it.
Although he may not boast the same number of victories and world titles as Lewis Hamilton or Sebastian Vettel, he continues to stand as the sport’s most compelling competitor.
During his 18 years behind the wheel, Raikkonen has barely fulfilled his team media obligations, rarely mixes with his colleagues, says very little and yet still manages to be one of the most popular figures on the grid.
The enigma that is Raikkonen is difficult to explain. Introverted? Shy? He is famous for his distant way of dealing with those around him.
This has created plenty of amusing incidents and has made people love him even more.
At most tracks around the world, there are Finland flags billowing in the wind, and fans decked out to see their man. Their prized asset. They may never have met Kimi, but they feel he belongs to them.
It is interesting that a man who says and does very little remains such an admired figure.
The Espoo native is known as the ‘Iceman’ for his extreme calmness under pressure. He is the oldest driver on the grid, turning 41 in October, and says openly that he is only competing in F1 as a hobby.
He is a fearless driver with a never-say-die attitude. His searing pace and consistency have yielded 21 wins, 103 podiums, 18 pole positions, and a world championship in 2007. Achievements some stars can only dream of.
One man who has known the Raikkonen family for over 20 years is Heikki Kulta, a sports reporter at Finnish newspaper Turku News, and a veteran of over 350 Grand Prix.
He’s a walking encyclopedia of knowledge and has written a book in Finnish on his countryman which translates to Kimi, Ferrari & amazing championship.
“He is the most popular and respected motor racing star of Finland,” Kulta told Sport360.
“The Finns love our heroes not being that talkative and Kimi is built from that mode. He lets his performances do the talking and that is what most of us like to do here as well.
“When Kimi was elected the international sporting ambassador of Finland in 2017, the prime minister even praised him as the best known Finn around the world.”
Maybe it’s the ‘I don’t care’ attitude that draws people towards him. He is upfront with the media, providing brief three-word answers before moving on to the next journalist. His former boss Eric Boullier previously said he does what he wants.
One example immediately springing to mind is the 2006 Monaco Grand Prix where, after he retired from the race, he simply walked off the track on to the dock in his full race gear to get on a yacht. He was pictured a few minutes later on the television in the hot tub.
No one would get away with that these days. Every driver has to go straight back to the paddock after the race to fulfill media obligations and then into their respective team villa.
People are drawn to him because he says what he thinks, not trotting out some sponsor friendly prepared answers to every single interview.
Chris Medland, a journalist and presenter with MBC Action, has been working in the paddock for nearly a decade and has interviewed Raikkonen on numerous occasions.
“Everyone knows drivers don’t love doing media or sponsor appearances, but they don’t always say it, so when Kimi doesn’t try and hide his indifference to something then people respect it,” he said.
“While that aspect is relatable, the flip side that makes him attractive is the fact that Kimi doesn’t give a lot away, and that mystery is enticing.
“For a while in the mid-late 2000s, F1 was criticised for not having enough characters, but Kimi always stood out as one.”
At a TAG-Heuer event some years ago, he was asked what made the brand so special. Generally, an athlete would rattle off a long-winded PR-driven answer to praise the brand. For Kimi, he simply replied: “it is okay.”
His philosophy is: why use more words when you can use less. He does not like giving interviews and is uncomfortable in front of the camera.
Once a German journalist tried to ask him a question, but he said: “I can’t hear you”. She continued asking ‘what do you think of the race?’ and he responded with “it’s gonna be hot” and then strolled away.
This is just one of many instances when he gives simple, monotone answers, and it is funny to watch.
Other similar examples are when he was asked what it was like to drive at 300km/h, to which he replied “it feels normal”. Or when an interviewer asked him how important a helmet was to a driver. Kimi responded “it protects my head”.
His radio messages have become the stuff of legend. They often involve a great deal of confusion, little outbursts or rude statements about other drivers.
His most famous one is ‘leave me alone, I know what I’m doing’ during the 2012 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. Raikkonen went on to win that race, and the phrase ended up on t-shirts and fan banners.
At a news conference the following year, he was blunt about his feelings. “I’m not here to please people, I’m here to do my own thing and be happy and hopefully get some good results,” Raikkonen said. “That’s the most important thing.”
Even better, at the 2018 Japanese Grand Prix, Raikkonen’s book The Unknown Kimi Raikkonen turned up. It was so popular an extra 10,000 copies were quickly printed off to keep up with demand.
He seems like a fun guy, not a corporate automaton. He shuns sponsor appearances wherever possible. He has a personality that is rare in F1 and draws fans in large numbers.
A 2017 fan survey ranked him as the sport’s third most popular driver behind Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso.
Of course, in more recent years, the likes of Charles Leclerc, Max Verstappen, Daniel Ricciardo, and Carlos Sainz have enjoyed more elevated levels of fame due to their ability to draw younger fans on social media.
While these drivers are capturing a younger fan base, the private Raikkonen set up his own Instagram account in late 2017. His following grew by 270,000 within days. Now he is the fifth most followed driver with 1.8 million followers.
For photographers, he is hard to capture because he’s never in the paddock. He’s very rarely seen speaking to other drivers as well. He leaves hospitality maybe five minutes before a session starts and is straight on to the track.
All the man wants to do is race.
With more freedom and fewer responsibilities at Alfa Romeo, Kulta believes the switch from Ferrari in 2019 has allowed him to enjoy his racing more.
“I think the approach of Alfa Romeo means a lot, as quitting Ferrari meant (leaving) the political burden behind him,” he said.
“As Kimi himself says, in this team, racing became like a hobby for him, as the factory is close to his home in Switzerland and he does not have to do too much promotion work anywhere.”
But who is Raikkonen really? We, as fans and media, get a handle on most drivers after seeing them speak for years in front of the press. Unfortunately, no one really knows him after all this time.
Away from the limelight, based on accounts from colleagues and friends, he is very talkative and open. However, in front of the media and people he doesn’t know well, he closes up and often appears to be far away from reality.
Former team-mates Romain Grosjean (Lotus) and Fernando Alonso (Ferrari) expressed in the past that they never really knew Raikkonen on a personal level, although Vettel admitted the pair got on quite well during their time at Ferrari.
“On a personal level, he does talk to me. I don’t know what I do differently. He’s one of the most straightforward guys I’ve met so far and I respect a lot that he has always been very honest,” said Vettel.
“Since I came into Formula 1, he was ready to help, even gave me a lift a couple of times early on. I get along with him.”
Medland, meanwhile, agrees that Raikkonen treats everyone fairly and is smart and attentive, even if he doesn’t say too much.
“I’ve managed to never ask Kimi a really stupid question, and slowly he does pick up on who seems sensible and who asks the sort of question he doesn’t like answering,” he said.
“From this, when you do start a question, he has a preconceived feeling towards you of ‘This person’s alright’ or ‘This person is an idiot’.
“If you’re the right side of that, you get proper answers out of him, and he’s good value. If you’re unprepared or start wasting his time, he sees right through you.”
As the years have worn on, his hunger to succeed has never wilted. And whether he went on to enjoy high levels of fame or not, it probably wouldn’t have even bothered him. He is a free spirit.
But has Raikkonen always been this mysterious, relaxed figure or is this something that only came about as he got older? Kulta believes the key change was when he met his wife Minttu, a former flight stewardess, back in 2013.
“Minttu managed to tame him, although they are both very pretty similar in how they live and how they want to relax. After moving to Switzerland with Kimi, Minttu travelled to all the races. And after becoming parents, they have been travelling as a family to many races, so that has helped Kimi to race for so long,” he said.
“The change in Kimi is easy to read from his body language, which has always been the case. Kimi really loves this life of a family man and to still be able to do what he loves the most – that is racing.
“It has been a change in a better direction, and you can see that being happy does not make a racing driver any slower or less competitive.”
His contract at Alfa Romeo expires at the end of 2020. A team where he started his career all those years ago. He is still Mr. Consistent, sealing eight points finishes last season as he optimises the potential of the car.
The 2021 regulation reboot – addressing all areas from revenue, costs, and car designs – will not be a factor in his choice to carry on in F1 or call it a day. The likely outcome is that he will return to rallying in his native Finland.
Should he retire from F1 at the end of this campaign, Kulta believes there will be less interest in the sport in Finland.
“When Kimi retires, it would mean quite a drop in Finnish interest in F1, as long as Valtteri (Bottas) is not winning the championship. Valtteri’s popularity is maybe 40 per cent compared to Kimi,” he said.
For young kids trying to break into the sport, there is so much pressure to toe the line, and be that corporate, robotic driver. Raikkonen was the last to not feel that way. He spoke his mind at every opportunity and was never fake.
Irrespective of what decision he makes regarding his future, there can be no doubt that Raikkonen will go down as a legend of the sport. All world champions are. Some days it came off for him, some days it didn’t.
The wins are important, but far from the most important. F1 is much more than that. It is the pinnacle of motorsport, which brings together millions of people worldwide. Just like Raikkonen has done for the last 18 seasons.
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