► We tag along to Raikkonen's first WRC rally
► One goal: an actual interview with Kimi
► Or even just a photo with him
This feels wrong. We’ve only just arrived at Färjestad – venue for the Super Special Stage that kicks off Rally Sweden – yet in a few seconds I’ll be standing next to Kimi Räikkönen, one-time F1 world champion, now full-time rally driver – the only F1 driver ever to make such a full-time switch.
We’ve sneaked in to an autograph session and moved quickly up the line by pushing past small children and bypassing other drivers. Any second now I’ll be able to talk to Kimi, maybe even tickle him under the chin, and there’ll be absolutely no security guards or barriers between me and one of the world’s highest-paid sports stars, just a flimsy wooden table.
I’m surprised how nervous I am – my heart spikes, my mouth dries and my carotid arteries pound in my neck. What to say to Kimi? What to say?
Two girls ahead get a signed picture – no pleasantries exchanged – then walk off upright, breathless, eyes wide, before having an entire conversation of convulsive shrieks. There are male fans too, all dispatched silently. It’s only the youngest kids that Räikkönen goes out of his way for, all of whom are too shy to make eye contact. He leans over the table, smiles, speaks briefly and places the signed card in their hand. My turn. Oh god.
‘Hello Kimi, we’re from CAR magazine and we’ve come to…’ Räikkönen looks up slowly from under the oversized brim of his Red Bull baseball cap and fixes his wolf-like, ice blue eyes dead on mine. He looks absolutely furious, and I mean absolutely, genuinely ready-to-punch-me angry.
‘Ach, this is not the time for this,’ he drones. ‘I just wanted to say we’ve come to follow you on the rally,’ I stammer. ‘Look, well, take this,’ he says, staring into the distance, handing me two glossy bits of signed card that depict his Citroën C4 jumping through the air. ‘Are you enjoying rallying?’ I ask. ‘Yes,’ comes the reply, one laboured with the emphasis a child might use to assure his mother he will tidy his bedroom.
Later his PR will explain that Citroën – our hosts – hold no real sway over Räikkönen because he’s Red Bull’s driver. An interview is impossible; if I’m lucky I’ll get a stalky fan pic.
Rallying is very much Plan B for the 2007 F1 world champion. Plan A was to contest the 2010 F1 championship – he was contracted to Ferrari this year, but Maranello pushed him out to make way for Fernando Alonso. Other talks stalled, and so Räikkönen’s long-held WRC ambitions took over, the Finn hooking up with fellow countryman Kaj Lindström, one-time co-driver for multiple WRC champion Tommi Mäkinen.
‘We first talked when I worked with Tommi [who retired at the end of 2003!]. Kimi said he’d like to do rally one day, and I said I would be his co-driver,’ says Lindström, revealing a more deeply-held desire and sense of loyalty on Räikkönen’s part than his icy, stoic demeanour can suggest.
Making – and trusting – pacenotes is something Räikkönen has struggled with after the predictability of F1 circuits. So, how do they build that trust? Through simply driving? ‘Well, you have to do things to get to know each other outside the car too,’ says Lindström. ‘What like?’ ‘Well… things.’ All Räikkönen’s inner circle are hesitant when it comes to fleshing out details.
The pair have done five rallies so far, this weekend’s 2010 season opener being their sixth, and Räikkönen’s first as a fully fledged WRC driver. He’s driving a Citroën C4 alongside Sébastien Ogier in the Citroën Junior Team, a peg below world champion Sébastien Loeb and Danni Sordo’s factory effort.
When you look at the awnings and the slick team transporters, the two outfits look pretty similar, but where as many as 70 people work at the factory team, just 17 work with Räikkönen and Ogier. Testing is far more limited too, and the car – though similar – is to Loeb’s 2008 spec. Meanwhile, Räikkönen’s engineer, Cederic Mazenq, is a young chap whose motorsport CV dates back to only 2006 and whose WRC career began only in 2009. No red carpet here.
‘Kimi rang me personally in October last year to ask if he could do this,’ says no-nonsense Citroën Racing boss Olivier Quesnel. ‘I said he would need to bring the budget. Red Bull paid; we met in January.’
Does Räikkönen get preferential treatment? ‘No, he has to go fast first. He is like a young driver, rallying is very complicated and he has to learn. But I know that he’s doing it very seriously and really wants to succeed. After the first half of the year we’ll see, but I’m sure he’ll do well.’
‘He is professional, open-minded and clever,’ adds engineer Mazenq, ‘and his feedback – because of F1 – is very precise; he feels every click on the dampers. But he knows it’s a new challenge, that he can’t yet compete with the top drivers and that he has to learn slowly.
‘We have tried to set up his car so it is easier for him, so that he can concentrate 70% on driving, 30% on pacenotes. He has a slightly softer suspension set-up than the others so he can easily feel the lateral and longitudinal grip and have more confidence. But he is smoother on entry with the steering than normal, so he gets understeer. We have to half-way adapt the car, half-way adapt Kimi.’
Some moan that rallying isn’t as gruelling as it was, but they’re still long old days on the WRC. It starts on Thursday at 8pm with the Super Special, two cars racing Scalextric-style in a stadium. The next day starts at 8.18am in the forests, the drivers barely stopping until gone 8pm. Saturday is ‘just’ 7.58am until nearer 6pm; Sunday 7.52am until 3.30pm. During that time the drivers will pound 345km of difficult stages, trusting pacenotes entirely as they commit to blind bends, later navigating a further 445km on public roads as spiked tyres rumble coarsely below them. F1 it ain’t.
At 8am on Friday we drive to the stages with studded winter tyres clawing at icy, snow-dusted roads, grateful for our multiple thermal layers and waterproofs and thick boots as the temperature dips to –21degC.
We park and walk into the forests, and the sun spears through evergreens laden with snow, backlighting smoke from fires that fans have lit to keep warm and cook food, a smell of sausages wafting through the sharp, cold air. There’s a lot of beer about, kids roaming, Finnish flags waving and just a handful of marshals who’ll blow a whistle seconds before a rally car roars by at 75mph in a place where you’d barely top 30mph.
Loeb is past first in a blur of guttural induction slurps and thunderclaps, then he’s slightly sideways and airborne over a crest, a snowy mist enveloping us in his wake; Ford driver Mikko Hirvonen is next, clearly faster, absolutely on it. Räikkönen’s seventh – quick, committed, but visibly slower. Later he’ll spin, then compound his error by sinking into the soft snow banks at the side of the road while turning round. Twenty six minutes will tick by.
When he rolls into service after dark, Räikkönen is mobbed by the press as we abandon the leaders for a guy who’s now half an hour down on them, 47th out of 54. Barely able to open his door in the crush, he leans out and pushes gently at a photographer. We all sway backwards, and the driver who’s kneeling behind us trying to fix his car gets crushed and pushes back; nobody’s in control of this tumult of flashbulbs and notepads. Räikkönen talks to no-one, but his co-driver does.
‘For a guy who’s done five rallies, his driving is absolutely incredible,’ says Lindström, buzzing with adrenaline. ‘You ask Petter Solberg, anyone, it’s incredible. Okay, it’s unfortunate we went off, but these things happen and Kimi Räikkönen himself was digging us out with a shovel! I just hope people focus on his driving, not making some kind of scandal newspaper story.’
With that Lindström’s gone, checking the car into service, tailed by more reporters. Later we’ll eavesdrop on a WRC TV interview, the only media who get access, but Räikkönen says nothing revelatory – ‘it would be nice to go faster’; ‘it’s much more challenging than F1’ – then, remarkably, pushes past me with what I’m sure is a horrified glimmer of recognition, walks over to the inebriated Finnish fans who’ve been incessantly shouting his name on megaphones, then laughs and signs their crash helmets. Is my approach too subtle?
Saturday sees some impressive performances on what even leader Hirvonen describes as very difficult stages: ‘There are deep ruts; loose snow, ice and gravel. You take chances all the time.’ Räikkönen remains consistent, if unspectacular – 54.4sec off the pace on stage nine in 11th; a minute down in 32nd through 10; 22.8sec down but up to sixth on stage 15.
We continue to follow him everywhere. When he gets out of his car to check tyre pressures at a remote refuelling station, we bound out from behind a pile of logs; when he takes the back way into the service area, he doubletakes as I wave from the side of the road; when we stake out his motorhome, he slips out of another door and emerges between two tents. I stand next to his car for an hour at evening service as my feet freeze, then discover he’s eating in Citroën’s hospitality area. He is as well; Kimi Räikkönen eating his dinner right there. We can just walk in.
I take the horse whisperer’s approach – walk in timidly, look at the floor, take a seat at the opposite end of the marquee, sit there for a few minutes, then approach his PR while WRC TV grabs an interview. One picture with Kimi. One picture. ‘Kimi. One picture,’ says his PR.
Kimi Räikkönen rolls his eyes, then walks over and stands next to me. ‘Thanks Kimi,’ I say. There’s no reply. Mark Fagelson takes the snap. Räikkönen immediately retreats to safety. That’s it. We’re done. Wow.
The rally ends the next day after 21 demanding stages. Hirvonen finishes 42.3sec ahead of Loeb who’s 33.1sec ahead of Jari-Matti Latvala. Possibly the world’s best F1 driver finishes in 30th, 37min 47.2sec off the winner and over 30 minutes behind fifth-place teammate Ogier. ‘In F1 the only big change is when you’re on slicks in the wet,’ he tells WRC TV later, ‘but in rally every corner can be different and usually is. I have a lot of respect for the top-level guys.’
Will he be back for 2011? Team boss Olivier Quesnel hasn’t ruled out promotion to the works team, but I doubt it. Räikkönen says he enjoys the WRC’s no-bullshit ethos, but with that comes an autograph session that anyone can gatecrash; a service park where journalists roam in wild packs; the necessity to drive on roads where the public can simply follow you.
The WRC won’t change to accommodate Räikkönen, and you wonder if he might not crave a bit of F1 bullshit – some properly defined barriers between him, the public and the press – from time to time. It’d certainly get me off his back. As we leave to catch our plane I figure his PR is getting me off his back too when he tells me to email some questions and Räikkönen will answer them. It feels like emailing Father Christmas. Then, four days later, a response pings into my inbox. I can’t quite believe it.
‘Do you have rally heroes?’ I’ve asked. ‘No, I never had any heroes in F1 and it is the same in rallying,’ writes Räikkönen. ‘But I’ve always been friendly with rally drivers like Tommi Mäkinen, who has run my car for me in the past. He has been a great champion.’
‘Is rally scarier than F1?’ ‘I’m never scared in a car so it’s hard to say. It’s true that in rallying you are close to the trees, but the speeds are lower than F1. At the moment it is more difficult than F1, certainly!’
‘Will rallying make you a better F1 driver?’ ‘I don’t think so as it’s another style of driving completely. In rallying you are competing on such a huge variety of surfaces and conditions, and technically F1 is very different with all the parameters like aerodynamics that don’t really play a part in rallying.’
‘Was Sweden more gruelling than an F1 weekend?’ ‘In some ways, yes. We were leaving at 5.30am, then not getting back until after 10pm. You have just half an hour at service halts, then a bit longer in the evening, so there is not much time to do everything. On the other hand, the physical forces on your body are not as big as they are in F1.’
‘Everyone says this is a learning year for you in the WRC, but can you really see yourself in the 2011 WRC?’ ‘There’s no point in thinking about that until halfway through this season, but for sure there is a possibility that I might stay in rallying next year.’
All that time stalking, freezing and travelling and a simple email answers more than we’d probably have covered in person. ‘The trick,’ says the PR, ‘is to get him when he’s bored.’
As we’ve learned, that’s harder than Räikkönen’s apathetic glaze suggests.