Something unique happened during the Hungarian Grand Prix weekend: for the first time 318 attempts, Kimi Raikkonen qualified last on merit for a Formula 1 race. He’d started at the back before, but always as a result of some kind of penalty or problem; never because he was at the bottom of the timesheets.
He finished 15th, one of only eight occasions he’s been classified so low in an F1 race. You might think this might be an ignominious weekend for the 2007 world champion, a man with 21 victories and who just two years ago was up the front and racing a Ferrari. But Kimi is a unique character and seems content with his lot, even when it doesn’t add up to points and Q3 appearances.
The combination of a former world champion and a back-of-the-grid struggler is bafflingly incongruous. How can someone so used to going wheel-to-wheel at the sharp end accept life in an uncompetitive Alfa Romeo team where he’s managed to score points just once in the last 12 races?
But Raikkonen is an unusual man, one of outrageous talent combined with sufficient drive to become one of just 33 people to secure the ultimate prize in grand prix racing. Yet he also has the temperament to drop deep into the midfield and get out of the car having finished nowhere without showing any signs of either frustration or, by his standards, boredom.
“For sure, we are not where we want to be, but also I don’t think we do favors for ourselves in certain things so we have to do things better and improve,” was his conclusion after the race, delivered in his trademark unemotional staccato. No ‘this is a waste of my time’, no ultimatum for better performance, no sign of anger.
Ever since he signed for Alfa Romeo, trading a frontrunning machine to one scraping to make the top 10, he has been refreshingly direct. Usually, Raikkonen simply explains he’s enjoying it and that this is good enough for him. Whether the desire to bank a still-lucrative paycheck – albeit one for a fraction of the remuneration he commanded in his pomp – is part of it, who knows. But he genuinely appears content to be a 40-year-old still reveling in the challenge of F1 at the back.
“I don’t think it’s any different,” says Raikkonen of the difference in racing in the pack as opposed to up front. “When you do enough years you will have some races that you have to come through the pack, or you end up passing for positions somewhere.
“I don’t feel that the racing is any different, you might race against different teams or different cars but in general it’s the same story wherever you race. It’s the same sport and different team, and some races are a little bit better than others, but I don’t see why you should change your mindset or anything else. You always try to do the best that you can, and be as high as you can, so it hasn’t changed.”
Perhaps some of his fellow former world champions wish they could achieve such a zen-like state, whether that means settling for a lesser station in F1 or accepting that the glory days are gone and embracing retirement. Elite sportspeople are an intensely driven breed – they have to be to get to the top. But this can sometimes make knowing when to cash in your chips or having the ability to switch off that desperation to win – or as Lewis Hamilton puts it, not to lose – and simply enjoy yourself, impossible.
Take Sebastian Vettel. He’s contemplating moving to Racing Point for its transformation into the Aston Martin team next year. The Racing Point is a fast car and the team has grand ambitions, which ultimately is what he’s buying into. Vettel is asking himself if he has the motivation and the drive, at 33 and after four world titles, to invest at the very least two years of his life, probably more, into a project that could potentially allow him to win more races.
He wouldn’t give a second thought to taking a place at Alfa Romeo, a team that appears to have gentle aspirations to move forward but isn’t looking like emerging as a winning force on a timeline that would suit him.
Martin Brundle asked him this explicitly in an interview for British broadcaster Sky Sports F1. Would he consider taking the Raikkonen path? Vettel’s answer was clear, and aligned with his previous comments about having no interest in racing in F1 to make up the numbers.
“I want to win, so I know that, and I think we all know that, at the moment you need to be in a certain car to be able to win,” said Vettel. “That’s probably not on the cards, and then obviously, I have to evaluate whether there’s anything that comes close to that.”
Vettel has to have a realistic shot of winning, if not today then at worst tomorrow, for it to be worth his while. His drive and desire means that success is what matters above all, so even if Racing Point remains at its current level of being able to take top six finishes and the odd podium – perhaps even a victory, with a slice of luck on its side – that won’t be enough.
He might yet also decide to retire. But presumably that insatiable appetite for success makes taking that option profoundly difficult. While Vettel isn’t someone who craves the limelight, he will know you are a long time retired in sport and he wouldn’t be the first to have been unable to find something to fill the hole left by not competing. If he can’t find contentment there, he will have to risk unhappiness by rolling the dice on a Racing Point project that should succeed, but isn’t a sure thing.
The we have Fernando Alonso. He turned his back on Formula 1 at the end of 2018 and, while he criticized the style of F1 and, on signing to come back with Renault next year, talked up the changes drawing him back in, the real problem was lack of opportunity to win.
The day after the announcement he would sit out 2019 was made, I put it to him that he wouldn’t be doing this if he had a competitive car at his disposal. This elicited, briefly, agreement before he returned to his chosen messaging. Alonso perhaps could have accepted F1 was over once it became clear none of the proven top teams wanted him – but he’s gambled on Renault.
Yes, it’s a factory team and yes, the 2022 regulations reset offer an exciting opportunity. But there’s no cast-iron guarantee, and he’ll have to spend next season racing in the upper midfield at best as he waits for the key season to come round. He wants that third world championship and he had to take this drive to have any chance of that happening, but it’s another long shot.