Motor Racing: Smooth start for the blue-eyed boy of formula one: Kimi Raikkonen is something special

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Date: Mar. 6, 2001
Publisher: Guardian Newspapers
Document Type: Article
Length: 1,107 words

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Byline: Richard Williams

He is 21 but looks no more than 16. His complexion is as pale as his arctic-blue eyes. Sunday's Australian grand prix was the first time he had raced a formula one car, and only the 24th car race of his short life. But after he had finished sixth, scoring his first world championship point, Kimi Raikkonen seemed no more impressed than if he had spent the preceding hour and a half playing outside on his skateboard.

No, the race in Albert Park had held no real surprises. Even though none of the young Finn's previous races, in much smaller cars, had lasted more than half an hour, the experience of a full-length grand prix in a 750-horsepower machine, pulling goodness knows how much G-force in the corners, had not left him exhausted, either physically or mentally. In fact he felt as if he could have got straight back into his Sauber and done it all again.

"It felt much shorter," he said, giving the barest hint of his new perspective on life, "than it does if you're looking from outside."

This may have been the most impressive grand prix debut since Jacques Villeneuve arrived from the United States and finished second on the same track five years ago. And yet Raikkonen is effectively on probation, his FIA "superlicence" - the document permitting him to compete in formula one - issued on the understanding that it will be reviewed after the fourth race of the season.

As with the case of Jenson Button a year ago, there has been no shortage of greybeards keen to express reservations about letting such an inexperienced young man loose on the grand prix grid, including Max Mosley, the president of the FIA and a member of the superlicence committee, who cast his vote against letting Raikkonen race.

The sceptics were wrong. Raikkonen qualified 13th for Sunday's race - the same grid position, someone recollected, as his compatriot Mika Hakkinen, the double world champion, in his first grand prix 10 years to the month earlier - and after making a bit of a mess of the start, recovered to pick up places not just by benefiting from retirements but through finding a way past some of his better known rivals. "It was nice to do some overtaking," he said. "I got past Fisichella, Jenson and Alesi."

Perhaps passing the two underpowered Benettons did not count for much. "There wasn't a fight," Button remembered. "He was behind me, and then he was in front of me, and that was it." But the third scalp clearly pleased Raikkonen's team boss, Peter Sauber, with whom Jean Alesi spent two disappointing seasons before leaving to join Alain Prost's team.

Sauber was clearly elated by the performance of both his young drivers, the 23-year-old German Nick Heidfeld finishing fourth. "I'm very, very proud of them," he said. "Nick has more experience than people think. But it was a risk to take Kimi. You know, we finished eighth in the championship last year, we needed to go forward, and to do that you have to get good drivers. I tried very hard to get Heinz-Harald Frentzen, but it was not possible. So I had to take a risk. And I'm really happy, because Kimi's race was beautiful."

And not just his race, either. "What's remarkable about him," his race engineer, Jacky Eeckelaert, said, "is that with so little experience he can act at a grand prix weekend just like a normal racing driver. He's quite amazing. In those three days he didn't put a foot wrong - not one single spin, no gravel trap, not even a flat spot on a tyre. Nothing. He drove a perfect three days, like a driver who's been doing it for 10 years."

Eeckelaert had told him to take the weekend steadily. "We pushed him to be very careful, because people had been critical. For instance, Michael Schumacher rolled his car on Friday. Not his fault. Jacques Villeneuve and Ralf Schumacher had a big accident in the race, and a marshal was killed. I don't know whose fault that was. But if Kimi had been involved, and perhaps someone had been killed, can you imagine what people would have said?"

But if Eeckelaert was pleased by his sensible behaviour, he was delighted by his speed. "He was fast and consistent. You can be slow and make no mistakes, but he's fast with no mistakes. So it means that his potential is even bigger than he's shown this weekend."

Raikkonen is from Espoo, a small town a few miles outside Helsinki. His background is modest. His father, Matti, drives a machine that flattens gravel roads. His mother, Paula, works in the state pensions office. He has an older brother, Rami, who is a rally driver and is currently leading the national under-25 championship.

When Kimi was three or four, his father gave the boys a pair of mini motorbikes to ride around the back yard. Sliding around in the rain and snow they made such a mess that it was thought prudent to move their hobby outside the home, and at the age of eight Kimi got his first home-built go-kart.

Ten years of successful competition in national and international kart races led him to England and Formula Ford in 1999. Last year he graduated to Formula Renault, winning all four races in the winter series, seven out of the 10 rounds of the British championship and two of the three races comprising the European series. Of his total of 23 races before Sunday he had won 13.

He has been managed since 1999 by Steve Robertson, a former Indycar driver who is the son of David Robertson, one of Button's co-managers. Raikkonen has been living with Robertson in Chigwell, Essex, but will soon move to Switzerland to be close to the Sauber factory. He is also an expert snowboarder and ice hockey player.

Just as some have misjudged Raikkonen's maturity at the wheel, others will probably assume from his quiet manner that he has nothing to say. But after a few minutes of parrying post-race questions, trying not to give answers that might betray naivety, his reserve began to melt. A grin broke through when he was asked how he had felt about finishing on the same lap as the leader.

"That was really nice," he said. "I was looking in my mirrors towards the end, but nobody was coming."

Kimi Raikkonen is probably not destined to spend his life looking in his mirrors. Pretty soon, you would have to guess, everybody else will be looking out for him.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A71322827