My Top 5: Drivers since 1992 #2
At number two, the Iceman. Kimi Raikkonen has commanded the position of ‘most
popular driver’ for the best part of a decade and on his day, he is capable of driving faster than anybody else.
Making his debut with the Sauber team, he very quickly made impressions on top teams McLaren and Ferrari. Scoring points for the Swiss outfit on multiple occasions, he was clearly a man with speed to burn. He had the ability to drive the car so much faster than it should have been able to go.
He pushed beyond the limit, and only in Michael Schumacher had we seen the like.
It is evident in his career statistics just how fast Kimi can drive. He set a joint record (Shared with Schumacher) of 10 fastest race laps in a row in both 2005 and 2008. He is also second on the all-time list of fastest lap setters – again behind Schumacher – with 43. Kimi is an incredible Grand Prix driver when he wants to be.
When he moved to McLaren in 2002, everyone was expectant. We were all waiting for
Raikkonen to deliver a strong challenge to what was becoming outright domination by Ferrari. Sadly, McLaren were still horrendously unreliable, and while Kimi was able to finish on the podium more often than not, he retired from over half the races. The championship was gifted to Schumacher.
A year later, things were different. McLaren had managed to remedy their reliability woes and Kimi scored his first victory at Malaysia, finishing on the podium a further nine times. He was painfully close to taking the championship, losing out by just two points. Although Schumacher took six wins that year, it was Kimi’s incredible consistency that really shone. He had positioned himself solidly inside the elite group of F1 drivers. The sport had a new star.
Despite yet more issues with his car, Raikkonen was fighting for the championship again in 2005. His seven wins that year equalled the most wins in a season by a driver who did not go on to take the championship. He and Champion Alonso were far ahead of the rest of the field, scoring twice as many points as their respective team mates. It was clear Kimi was good enough to be world champion, it could only be a matter of time.
It was becoming apparent though that a serious title challenge from the Iceman was being stifled by the hideous reliability problems that McLaren seemed unable to solve. A move away was becoming increasingly likely, and when it did, there could only be one destination.
He made an immediate impact at Ferrari, winning first time out in Melbourne. Opening his charge into what became a tense, season long battle with two emotionally charged McLaren drivers. It was his unparalleled consistency that brought the title. Baring a retirement at the Nürburgring, Kimi finished on the podium nine times in the last ten races including five wins. It was a sensational run of scoring that meant Kimi Raikkonen was finally a Formula One World Champion. His nerveless victories in both China and Brazil were enough to take the title by one point. It was possibly the most dramatic and exciting season in recent history, and no one deserved to take the win more.
After that, Kimi seemed to lose motivation. The results were still there, and it was clear he still had his unbeatable speed, but he was very quickly overshadowed by his teammate Felipe Massa. It seemed he had done what he needed to do, and that was enough for him. There were shades of Nico Rosberg’s recent retirement, and Kimi eventually retired at the end of 2009.
Three years in rallying seemed to replenish his motivation to win again, and the Iceman made his return to F1 with Lotus team. He was immediately up to speed and by the middle of the season he had become an outsider for the title. His outright speed was again dragging this car above it’s perceived limit. Even now Raikkonen possessed untouchable pace. A third-place finish in the 2012 championship with a win to his name for me was the performance of the season, and after another successful year in 2013, a return to Ferrari seemed likely.
And so, Kimi was back in red, but unfortunately the team’s performance was to hit a downward turn. The car didn’t suit him, and his sting was well and truly removed for the next two years. But the Kimi Raikkonen of old returned to us in 2016, he drove the car aggressively, and demolished Sebastian Vettel in the second half of the season. His incredible consistency returned, and it began to look a little like the Raikkonen from the McLaren years. I’m excited to see whether he can make one last push for a second World Championship in 2017.