Honda website
Honda website

MAY 31, 2008

World Champions and retirement

One rumour that has been knocking around in Formula 1 circles for a long time is that Kimi Raikkonen will quit Formula 1 at the end of the current year, if he wins a second World Championship. The Finn has been at the forefront in F1 since he joined McLaren Mercedes in 2002. He was then 22 years of age. He quickly became a title contender and was runner-up in the championship in 2003 and 2005. He then switched to Ferrari on what is believed to have been a three-year contract and he won his first World Championship last year. This year he has been a frontrunner but has not seemed as motivated as previously with lacklustre drives in several races.

Most F1 World Champions tend to go on until their late thirties, but retirement at 29 would not be unprecedented. Mike Hawthorn retired at 29 back in 1958, while Jody Scheckter quit at the age of 30 in 1980. James Hunt called it a day at 32 and Mika Hakkinen stopped at 33, a year earlier than Jackie Stewart.

Raikkonen relates particularly to James Hunt and from time to time has been known to compete in events using James Hunt as his pseudonym. This is reported to have happened twice last year in a snowmobile race in Finland and later in a powerboat race in Hanko (in which "James Hunt" appeared wearing a gorilla costume). When asked about it, Kimi said "Was it really me? You don't know."

The usual explanation for early retirement is self-preservation but with the improvements in safety over the years, there has been a switch of attitudes and the pressures of being an F1 driver are often cited as being a good reason to stop racing. The money earned by F1 drivers these days means that most of them who become established can quit whenever they want to as they have enough money to live for the rest of their days without ever needing to work again. What keeps them going is the passion for racing and the joys they get behind the wheel. Most do not know anything else, having raced professionally since their early teens. Few have any qualifications to do anything else. In the past retired champions have run their own teams with different levels of success; others have gone on racing in other championships, some have switched their ambitions to their children, others have turned to life as TV commentators. Only a couple have run successful businesses. Most continue to do promotional work of one form or another.

The latest stories about retirement have been appearing in German newspapers, notably Munich's TZ, which argues that the Finn still likes racing but does not have any interest in all the other things that being a Grand Prix driver entails. With plenty of money in the bank and two World Championships he will have proved that his first title was no fluke and the suggestion is that he would be satisfied to walk away and get away from the media spotlight and live life as he wishes to lead it.

These suggestions have been linked to suggestions that Fernando Alonso has an arrangement in place to join Ferrari. The 27-year-old Spaniard has been frustrated at McLaren and Renault and if he wants to win more titles needs to be at Ferrari. There are other teams that might win races one day but the statistics in modern F1 are very clear: since 1978 only four teams have won titles: Ferrari, McLaren, Williams and Benetton/Renault. Alonso has driven for Renault and McLaren and while Williams might be an option, Ferrari is the logical destination for him. He is a logical driver for Ferrari.