Raikkonen well poised for title battle

Barring an injury-inflicting accident, a DNF was just about the worst possible result for Lewis Hamilton in last week’s Chinese Grand Prix. Not only has it let Alonso right back into the hunt but crucially for Mclaren and Ron Dennis it has also given Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen a whiff of the title.

Like many others I was amazed at the team’s decision to keep the wounded Mclaren out on the track for so long. Martin Whitmarsh, Mclaren’s CEO, later laid the blame with the team and attributed the decision to stay out to the changing weather conditions and a desire to bring Hamilton into a pit-stop window.

While prolonging the pit-stop would not have made things any easier for Hamilton, ultimately the incident was caused by Hamilton overcooking it into the water logged pit entrance, not a delaminating tyre which caused no fundamental problems around the rest of the track’s corners.

We saw exactly the same thing in Turkey when Hamilton suffered a right front tyre failure. On entering the pit-lane to change tyres he locked up badly and barely avoided the armco barrier. That is not to say that Hamilton was solely to blame for his excursion into the gravel in Shanghai but rather to suggest that inexperience also played its part.

The big winner to emerge from the events in China is Kimi Raikkonen. The Finn has been seriously impressive in the last few races, particularly at the rain-soaked Japanese Grand Prix where he scythed his way through the pack, in atrocious conditions and with little more than a few metres of cockpit visibility, to finish third.

With both Mclaren drivers taking themselves out in the last two races, Raikkonen has definitely been let in the back door. If anything should happen to Hamilton in Brazil, Raikkonen, who is only three points adrift of Alonso, would be perfectly poised to steal the title from right under Mclarens’ noses. What an absolute disaster for Ron Dennis if Mclaren were to fall at the last hurdle given everything the team has gone through this year.

Support from team-mate Felipe Massa will be absolutely key for Raikkonen. Herein lies a problem for the Finn. Massa has had a relatively successful season, out-racing Raikkonen on a number of occasions it has to be said, particularly in the early part of the season. Had his luck been different in some of the later races he may well have emerged as Ferrari’s main challenger. Given his close relationship with Ferrari’s management as well, you would have to say that Massa will be reluctant to play second fiddle to Raikkonen least of all in front of his home crowd in Sau Paulo, Brazil.

I think we saw signs of this in China. Massa appeared unable to challenge Alonso after the Spaniard emerged just in front of him following the last round of pit-stops. Yet towards the end of the race Massa was putting in some absolute flyers suggesting he could have made much more of an impression on Alonso if had wanted to. Massa may be out of the title hunt but he is by no means out of play; he may just be the deciding factor.

It has been a strange few weeks. Who would have thought that a bit of H2O could wreck so much havoc. Yet here we are a week away from the season finale with the mouth-watering prospect of a three-way title battle. I’ll spare you from any creative preamble. I think Raikkonen captured it best: “it will be interesting.”

Christopher Hayes

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