Kimi Raikkonen this week watched his new steed, the F60, be born. In the wake of this, it was announced that he would take the number 3 and Felipe Massa the number 4, in defiance of convention regarding the previous year s championship standings. Stefano Domenicali, the team principal, then publicly called for a return of the â€˜old Kimi. Strange times indeed. But what is clear to most F1 fans is that the upcoming year holds all sorts of questions for the 2007 world champion.
Is the number change Ferrari s acknowledgement of Raikkonen as number one? Will Kimi return to the pinnacle, unchallenged as the raw fastest in F1? Was it just the tyre-heat issue that slowed him? Will he dispose of Massa next year?
Or will it be the year in which Massa exploits Kimi s apparent disinterest? How many more votes of confidence from the Ferrari hierarchy does the Finn need? How much does he want to â€˜do F1 after having won the world championship?
In so far as Raikkonen is a private man and does not give much away in interviews, it is difficult to predict the answers to these questions. Many believe, however, that he is one of the greatest drivers ever, and certainly one of the fastest. They cite his speed at Sauber and McLaren, and the probability of his winning the 2005 world championship with McLaren had it not been for their reliability problems. His win from 17th on the grid at Suzuka in 2005 is widely considered one of the best races ever. Fans of the Finn argue that his speed is not open to debate.
But critics would counter that his motivation, however, is in doubt. After winning the 2007 championship through consistency rather than show, many wondered if Kimi would remember the comment he is reported to have made when at McLaren. â€˜I don t like F1. I like the driving, but not everything else. I think one world championship will be enough.
His ice-racing, his gorilla suits and his alleged passion for Absolut and Marlboros, while delighting the lads, was hardly the image of a 21st century sports icon.
2008 was by all accounts disappointing. It was reported that he found the F2008 a difficult beast, recalcitrant with its tyres. It certainly suited Felipe Massa more. Prior to their association at Ferrari, few F1 aficionados would have drawn comparisons between the Brazilian and the Finn. Raikkonen was considered the natural, the fastest; Massa the learner who could dominate if conditions were right and he kept his head. 2008 changed that perception, showing all that the car can be the master of the drivers in this day and age. Massa s improvement cannot be discounted either.
So where to for Raikkonen now? 2009 is a make or break season for one of the world s most highly paid sportsmen. Alonso, it is an open secret, is waiting in the wings. Raikkonen is the star driver who brought Ferrari glory in 2007. Massa is the new darling who failed narrowly in 2008. If Raikkonen cannot resurrect his previous form, he will in all likelihood be ousted at the end of the year. But he will also have disappointed a lot of his fans, who saw in him the inspiring characteristics of the romantic heroes of old.