Ten years ago, one of the most famous racing drivers of the time was enjoying a spell doing pretty much whatever he wanted, in a style that is very much in keeping with his personality.
Kimi Raikkonen had won the Formula 1 drivers’ championship in 2007, but after a disappointing following two years with Ferrari, he was being paid to not drive when Fernando Alonso replaced him in 2010.
That gave Raikkonen the freedom to pursue other disciplines that interested him, and he duly turned his attention to rallying, contesting the full WRC as a member of the Citroen Junior team in 2010. But then came an even more unexpected crossover in 2011, when he headed across the Atlantic to try his hand at NASCAR.
“Obviously I was doing the rallying and then I was contacted by some people asking if I wanted to go there and do X amount of races,” Raikkonen recalls. “I thought, why not? With the rallying it sort of fit in, and I was interested to see how it is.
“I went there, and did I think two tests and had two races in Charlotte – one with the Trucks (with Kyle Busch Motorsports) and then one with the Nationwide (for NEMCO Motorsports with Busch). I did the test with the Sprint Cup car at Virginia and then it started to rain and we had to stop. I think I went off by mistake in the rain and destroyed the car…”
That test came in Robby Gordon’s road course car, with an eye on a first Sprint Cup entry at Sonoma. At the time, the crash and lack of further running suggested Raikkonen wasn’t overly interested in continuing, but the Finn says the reality was that a lack of funding halted his progress.
“The plan was actually to do a lot more, like do Sprint Cup races and other races, and everything was planned, but then unfortunately – not with the team but the people that basically were dealing with the normal issues with the cash – it was just promises and promises, and nothing seemed to happen.
“So I said, ‘look, basically you’ve got a couple of days, I’ve waited for a long time and if it’s not going to happen then just say so and I’ll go’. That was only the reason that I didn’t do more racing.”
Raikkonen’s rarely one to ponder on the ‘what if?’ moments in life, because in his view, energy spent considering something that is hypothetical and can no longer be influenced is energy wasted. It’s the same reason it’s difficult to get predictions out of him – predictions won’t change the outcome – yet even he admits he wishes the NASCAR project had come off.
“It was a shame, because I thought it was quite fun,” he says. “It was obviously completely different to what I’m used to. F1 and rallying is very different, and then NASCAR is completely its own way of racing and how it is run. I had a good time there. I enjoyed it. It was also nice that it didn’t matter where (in the pack) you race – there are so many cars that you always end up racing with somebody.
“I didn’t do too badly in the Truck Series race, and then in Nationwide, I think it was I think the first race for the team in that class, and I had some speeding in the pit lane (penalties) and stuff like that.
“I think it was nice. Obviously on TV it looks easy, like, they only have two corners and it should be simple, but obviously there are a lot of things like in any sport – the margins and the small things make a huge difference in that kind of racing.”
Finishing 15th in Trucks represented a very solid first outing, but when the overall plan didn’t work out, Raikkonen also got a little bit of an unfair reputation in terms of his approach, having wrecked a Cup car and then disappeared not long after. But the no-nonsense mentality of NASCAR crews was something he really warmed to.
“I was actually looking forward to doing some Sprint Cup races, and there were supposed to be a couple of road circuits, but unfortunately a couple of people who promised those things never delivered,” he says. “And then the worst part was the team and the car crew were great people and a great team, and the guys that were with the team were the people that really kept their promises.
“There was actually a really nice guy that I’m still in contact with, and he’s been to a few F1 races. So I think it was a good group of people apart from a few guys that actually had to pay, and surprisingly didn’t come up with the money!”
This interview took place in Europe, and over here, many casual racing fans will tune in this weekend to watch their first Daytona 500 and either be hooked, or convinced that oval racing is easy. The reason that latter view is so common has a lot to do with how rare Kimi-style crossovers are: there are few examples of an F1 driver taking on the challenge, and highlighting just how tough it is.
“I think I kind of expected that it would be difficult, because if it would be easy… a lot of things look so simple or easy on TV when you look from the outside, but to really know what to do in terms of changing the car a bit during the race or when conditions change takes time,” he says.
“It’s like in F1. A lot of people can be very fast on one lap, but then a race distance is a different story. So I always expected it to be difficult, and then I had a very limited amount of understanding.
“I think one thing that made it nice but also difficult is that you had no data in NASCAR. It’s not like in F1, where you could look at all the data and learn a lot from that. There was purely lap time or the average speed, and you went by feeling, and you asked somebody and they would tell you! It’s not something on paper that you can look at and say ‘OK this is this and that’.
“Obviously in testing you can use it but not in the race weekend, so it’s more like an old-fashioned style, and I think it’s nice because you have to figure it out yourself. It was nice to see, the people were great and the whole atmosphere is different.”
It’s clear from the way Raikkonen speaks that holds fond memories from his brief NASCAR career. But he’s also now 41 and still racing in F1, so has the chance of seeing him have another crack at it passed? Not according to the man himself, who retains an interest if he can pick and choose his schedule.
“Who knows?” he says. “Maybe one day. I really enjoyed how they race and how the whole thing runs.
“Maybe for some races. The first thing (in 2011), there were talks that I would do the whole season and I said no way, because I think there were, like, 36 races in a year, and it’s quite a rough season. So I would never do all of it, but some road circuits would be nice, and some ovals. I don’t know, we will see what happens in the future.
“Obviously sometimes I have thought about (what comes after F1), but honestly, when it comes to whenever I stop in F1, I doubt I will travel a lot. I want to spend time with the family, and I think the thing I most look forward to is having no schedule!
“Most of the sports – not only racing – dictate everything that happens in that year. When the time comes, it’ll nice to not have a schedule and you can dictate what happens in your life. Then we’ll see if I drive anything or not, for fun or something. I have no idea.”