It’s official, Kimi Raikkonen is off to the WRC. The former Finnish wunderkind, after being ousted by Ferrari, and spurned by his former employer McLaren, has opted to realize a long held ambition to race rally cars.
Raikkonen will contest the full 2010 season in a Citroen C4 sponsored by Red Bull. As reported in The Telegraph, Raikkonen said, “I always wanted to compete in rally, especially in the world rally championship at some point in my career. This is a new but very exciting challenge. For the moment we have a one-year contract and we will see how it goes for the future. I am really looking forward to testing and taking the start of the first rally.”
Raikkonen’s co-driver will be fellow Finn Kaj Lindstrom, who rode shotgun for four-time WRC champ Tommi Makinen during the 1990’s. Makinen is now retired. Having such an experienced and succesful co-pilot should obviously work to Raikkonen’s advantage during his rookie year.
The Citroen is widely regarded to be the most competitive package in the WRC at the moment. Sebastien Loeb took the 2009 WRC title in a C4. This too bodes well for Raikkonen, although it should be noted that he’ll actually be on the Citroen Junior Team, which finished in 4th place in 2009.
Raikkonen has a one-year contract, which obviously means that both parties, i.e. the team and the driver, will be evaluating the experience on a provisional basis. It’s clear that Raikkonen hasn’t completely forsaken the idea of returning to Formula 1, and the short-term arrangement with Citroen gives him a free hand to make a return to F1 in 2011, should an attractive opportunity arise.
A number of paddock pundits are already speculating that Raikkonen might jump to the F1 Red Bull team in 2011, when Mark Webber’s contract runs out. Obviously, this speculation has been fueled by the Red Bull sponsorship link, although at least one Red Bull spokesman has already denied this.
Clearly, the move to the WRC presents a risk to Raikkonen. If he does poorly, it will only reinforce the notion that he’s past his shelf date. Also, the longer a driver is away from F1, the more difficult it is to make a return. In a year’s time, no matter how well he does in the WRC, he’s apt to be thought of as a “former” F1 driver.
Granted, some former F1 pilots are still able to generate explosive excitement among the fans. Schumacher is a prime example, but Schumacher is one of the all-time greats. Raikkonen has never made that kind of an impact on the sport.
It could be that he ends up being one of the lower-tier champions in the annals of Formula 1, one of those drivers who wins a single title, and never again manages to produce the same level of performance on a consistent basis. There are quite a few F1 titleists who occupy this rank, including John Surtees, Denny Hulme, Mario Andretti, Jody Scheckter, Alan Jones, Keke Rosberg, James Hunt, Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve.
Indeed, while many of the current crop of drivers grew up idolizing Ayrton Senna or Michael Schumacher, Raikkonen’s role model, according to some, is James Hunt, a one-off title winner, who was as well known for his partying, playboy lifestyle as for his aggressive, loose-tailed driving technique. Cheers!