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Will Kimi Take a Sabbatical?

Kimi Raikkonen - next stop WRC?

Kimi Raikkonen - next stop WRC?

It seems that both Kimi Raikkonen and his once and possible future team, McLaren Mercedes, are playing a waiting game with respect to finalizing their plans for 2010.  Apparently, Raikkonen’s severance agreement with Ferrari gives him 17 million euros if he takes a sabbatical from Formula 1, as opposed to 10 million euros if he takes a drive with another team.

McLaren must certainly be aware of Kimi’s contract situation, and they have dealt with the matter, according to rumor, by giving him a low-ball offer of 5 million euros.  This would make the Finn’s aggregate compensation roughly 15 million euros, which is a bit shy of the 18 million euros per annum that current McLaren number on Alexander Hamilton is said to earn.

One has to say, this doesn’t make much sense from McLaren’s point of view if they’re truly keen on having Raikkonen back in the Woking stable of drivers.  Raikkonen would be sacrificing 2 million euros per year for the privledge of driving a McLaren.  Or, looking at another way, he’d be getting a 2 million euro bonus if he chose to spend the year drinking Finlandia and racing speedboats in a gorilla suit.

One can only assume that (a) McLaren are simply trying to get Kimi on the cheap, or (b) they’re trying to test Kimi to see how hungry he really is for the drive.  If the latter should prove to be the case, it seems too clever by half.  The apathetic Finn doesn’t seem to be the sort who can be nudged into doing something that’s against his natural inclination.

Of course, the details of McLaren’s offer are largely open to speculation at this point.  The duration of the contract, and the possible inclusion of a salary escalation clause, have not been made public, nor has the actual amount.  It could be that McLaren are offering a muli-year deal, with a salary escalator to take effect once Kimi’s Ferrari stipend has been fully paid.  This would make fiscal sense for McLaren, and should be an equitable alternative for Raikkonen.

On the other hand, if the salary offer is capped at 5 million euros for more than one year, Raikkonen would be justified in taking this as an insult.  This would be roughly twice what current McLaren number two Hekki Kovalainen is said to make.  Kovalainen has yet to distinguish himself as a driver, whereas Raikkonen is a former world champion who was once regarded as the quickest man on the grid, after Michael Schumacher. He would certainly be justified in thinking he’s worth more than double Kovalainen’s rate.

Of course, McLaren might be taking a relative view of the matter, through the prism of a chanaged economy.  Raikkonen’s most recent team mate, Felipe Massa, is said to earn in the neighborhood of 5 million euros per year, and over the balance of their three years together at Ferrari, Massa has generally equaled or bettered Raikkonen’s peformance.  If they use Massa as a baseline for value, they have a good case for offering Raikkonen a comparable paycheck.

Granted, Kimi is a former world champion, but, as Jacques Villeneuve learned, the title loses its luster quickly if you don’t stay in the hunt.  And Mercedes motorsport chief Norbert Haug has made no secret of the fact that McLaren is chasing raw talent, not a marquee name.  This was their rationale behind taking a chance on Raikkonen eight years ago, when they first hired him for the 2002 season. At that time, he was thought to be a young, hungry, potentially brilliant driver, with everything to prove.

Those days are gone.  Kimi apparently no longer thinks that he has anything to prove, and McLaren seem to be wondering if he’s hungry enough.  Perhaps they’re both right.  Judging from the sketchy reports that have seeped out to the media, each side is waiting for the other to signal a willingness to compromise.  If neither side gives in, Kimi might spend the next year driving a rally car, and he’ll be well paid to do so – by Ferrari.  Sadly, once he takes that step, the odds against his returning to Formula 1 will be very steep.

Image by Vince Pettit, licensed through Creative Commons.

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