AUGUST 26, 2008
What is going on with Kimi Raikkonen?
Formula 1 is a world which tends to make judgements based on what happened five minutes ago, rather than looking at longer-term trends or the bigger picture. Thus it is no surprise that Felipe Massa's victory in Valencia is seen as confirmation that the Brazilian is now Ferrari's challenger for the World Championship.
On paper this is certainly true. Massa has now won four of Ferrari's six victories, and he is just six points behind World Championship leader Lewis Hamilton.
The European GP win moves him to seven points ahead of his Ferrari team-mate, World Champion Kimi Raikkonen. The key point, however, is that while both Ferrari drivers have had their ups and downs this year, Raikkonen has now had four consecutive races in which his pace (rather than the result) has been very disappointing. He did finish on the podium in Hungary, but only after Massa and Hamilton ran into trouble. Raikkonen started the year strongly, but he has not won a race since Spain in April. Massa has won three and should really have won a fourth, but for a cruel engine failure in the closing laps in Budapest. Kimi has had one major disappointment. At Magny-Cours he was on course for victory when his exhaust failed and he dropped to second place.
Ferrari is standing by him (as one would expect), but there are fears in Maranello that there is more to this slump than meets the eye. Given that there have been rumours for some months that Kimi is considering retirement from F1 it is not surprising that people are putting two and two together an making five.
Raikkonen is saying that this is just a bad patch
"These things happen in racing," he said. "I am not too worried. I still think I can come back this season. It was not a great weekend, but it is not the first time. We are in a bit of a worse situation in the championship, but if we get all the things sorted then I think we still have a chance to come back."
Raikkonen is 28, but has been racing in F1 fulltime since he was 21. He has now made more money than he will need for the rest of his life. He still loves to compete, but there are some who think that having achieved his career goal of being World Champion his desire to be in F1 is perhaps no longer as strong as once it was. He makes no secret of the fact that he has never liked the F1 lifestyle, as it means he cannot enjoy himself as much as he wants to do without fear of media coverage.
The other thing that may be troubling Raikkonen is that he knows that Ferrari has a very good alternative in Fernando Alonso. The Spaniard is clearly interested in joining the team as soon as possible and there have even been rumours that there is some kind of arrangement in place already, depending on what happens with Raikkonen. The Finn has a contract for 2009 but will know very well how Ferrari operates as he was in Alonso's situation a couple of years ago when he did a deal with Ferrari 18 months before he replaced Michael Schumacher.
There is also the question of money. Raikkonen is believed to have a salary of around $40m, while Massa is not thought to be earning more than about $10m. Ferrari may be supportive of Raikkonen, but they also want value for money and there have been few signs in recent months that the spark that made Kimi such an attractive prospect earlier in his career is still burning as brightly as once it did.