He has always been something of an exception to the rule in Formula 1, but of all the things I was expecting to be writing about following the end of the United States Grand Prix, a Kimi Raikkonen victory wasn’t one of them.
It had been over five years – and 113 races – since the Finn had last stood on the top step of the podium. And that had been for Lotus, a year before he re-joined Ferrari. Since returning to Maranello, there had been zero wins.
It’s not that I doubted Raikkonen’s ability to win. In fact, this season he had shown a level of performance compared to Sebastian Vettel that suggested he was definitely capable of taking another victory. But with Vettel desperately trying to keep the title race alive, it just seemed massively unlikely that Raikkonen would be the lead Ferrari across the line.
That was to discount Vettel’s errors, of course. On Friday, some drivers leapt to Vettel’s defense – Pierre Gasly being one of them – as did Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff. But rules are rules and if there is a red flag delta to abide by, not doing so will carry a severe punishment.
It’s no good arguing that he was going very slowly already or took care passing the incident. A red flag indicates the session has stopped, there’s nothing to be gained by going quicker than the FIA demands and there’s also nothing to say there isn’t another incident on track that the driver is unaware of.
So I felt it was fully justified that Vettel was handed his three-place grid penalty for Sunday’s race. Error number one had been made, and the punishment handed out.
At least Raikkonen was in position to disrupt Lewis Hamilton’s race, giving Vettel a fighting chance if the Finn could get the better of the championship leader at the start. Of course, Raikkonen duly did, but error number two for Vettel was just around the corner when he spun again while battling with Daniel Ricciardo, just as he had with Max Verstappen two weeks earlier in Japan.
Suddenly, the door was open for Raikkonen to win, but it was never going to be easy. His early pace looked encouraging, but on the ultrasoft tire Raikkonen was likely to struggle earlier in the stint than Hamilton on the supersofts. Yet Mercedes saw an opportunity during the Virtual Safety Car period when Ricciardo retired, and went for the two-stop strategy to try and overhaul the lead Ferrari.
And it’s from that point that Raikkonen proved he has lost absolutely none of his ability to win races, even at the age of 39. When Hamilton came back at him towards the end of his opening stint, Raikkonen’s defense was perfect. He was aggressive but not overly so, and managed to disrupt Hamilton’s rhythm to get far enough clear of the Mercedes in the areas of the track he would be vulnerable.
Crucially, Hamilton couldn’t pass before Raikkonen pitted. But then came another task, and that was to eke enough life out his soft tires until the end of the race while being quick enough to stay ahead of Hamilton once he had made his second stop. Even with so little running on dry tires in Austin due to Friday’s rain, Raikkonen’s judgement was again spot-on.
His pace kept Hamilton in check before reeling in the Mercedes when Hamilton’s own first set of soft tires degraded. Once in the lead, Raikkonen kept enough tire life in hand to defend from Verstappen, but the fact he let the Red Bull get so close was because he also needed the weaponry to hold off Hamilton should the Briton move back into second place.
It was a drive of high quality, and one that bucks an overriding trend in F1 in recent years – to opt for youth.
I’m a big advocate of young drivers getting a chance and am really excited to see what Charles Leclerc and Pierre Gasly can do in front-running cars next season, as well as George Russell and Lando Norris in their rookie years. But I’ve probably overlooked the value of the most experienced drivers because Raikkonen has been playing second fiddle to Vettel, and Fernando Alonso has been stuck with an uncompetitive car for years.
Hamilton himself summed it up well after the race when he said: “Performance-wise, we were definitely off this weekend, but I think Kimi’s given me a lot of confidence, so that I can keep getting better. He’s 38? 39?”
“39,” Raikkonen replied. “Next year 40, so… I’ll invite you to the party.”
After the win, Raikkonen quipped that it was nice to prove people wrong, but the target of his comments were not Ferrari. Victory put the oft-monosyllabic Finn in an excellent mood – posing for numerous photos, giving lengthy interviews – but it also gave him a chance to really offer his side of next year’s move to Sauber.
“I think people don’t understand I’m actually very happy where I’m going,” he said. “I had my time with Ferrari, I won the championship with them. I won many races with them and for me, as a driver, I want different challenges, I want different things and I’m actually very happy to go there.
“It’s roughly 40 minutes from my home. For sure, my family will be happy, I’m happy to be with my family. I think it’s probably the best thing. I wasn’t really disappointed with the decision at any point.
“The only thing that I was interested in was to know what was going to happen, and that’s the only thing. The rest, I’ve been long enough in F1 to know that it doesn’t matter if you have contracts or not, things happen for different reasons, but I think the end result is that I’m very excited about it.”
Raikkonen clearly isn’t hanging on. He’s quick and he can win races, but his desire to race at the front is now outweighed by family interests. Sure, he’d much prefer Sauber to be fighting at the sharp end next year than not, but it isn’t the overriding priority.
And that marks a significant evolution in the man himself. This is the same Raikkonen who was famed for his drinking exploits, his party lifestyle and almost dismissive approach to everything apart from driving a car as fast as possible.
The latter is still largely true, but the more mature Raikkonen still does what he has to (and no more) largely without complaint. Even testing…
And given the fact that the majority of his post-race comments on Sunday referenced his family and children, it was clear that Raikkonen was winning for them as much as for himself.
There’s more to life than racing, and some within Formula 1 – not only drivers – may sometimes forget that. Raikkonen’s shown that evolving as a person and having different priorities doesn’t mean you can’t still be at the top of your game.