Will Gray

Gray Matter: Raikkonen’s big opportunity

Will Gray

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Kimi Raikkonen has suffered rotten luck so far in his comeback year with Lotus - but there are signs that he and the team could have what it takes to hit the front sooner rather than later...

Former world champion Raikkonen's return to Formula One merited only a muted fanfare this year, with some eager to see what he could do after his two year 'refreshment' away from the paddock but others feeling he would not have the heart or the will for a strong comeback.

In Australia, the sight of him dropping out of the first knock-out qualifying session (after he and his team fluffed their plans and only got in one timed lap) was a disappointment - but on the flipside his fightback to seventh in the race showed he hadn't lost his touch.

In Malaysia, he set the fifth fastest time in qualifying - just 0.25s off pole and quick enough to split the Red Bulls - but he had to start from 10th after a 5-place grid penalty for a gearbox change. Again, he raced well to finish fifth. And then proved a point by being the fastest man on the track at the end of the race.

Behind these performances, there is plenty to be positive about.

Firstly, the Lotus-Renault has shown itself to be a quick car, despite the team's off-track testing troubles, but what is even more important is that it appears, through the new regulations, to be well suited to Raikkonen's driving style.

Aside from the power steering issues, which hampered the Finn in the first race, the reduction in rear downforce and the resultant alteration in balance of the cars due to the effective ban on blown diffusers plays into Raikkonen's hands.

The Finn likes a car with a strong turn-in and does not mind a rear that has a tendency to step out of line if pushed hard, so the nature of the current cars gives him a real confidence to attack, despite the time he has spent away from the grid. The new tyres, also, are more forgiving of that style this year than they were last.

Lotus also made an astute move when they signed Raikkonen, bringing in the Finn's former race engineer to re-unite a strong team.

The relationship and technical understanding between engineer and driver is crucial. With such little time during each Grand Prix weekend to optimise set-up, it is vital that an engineer is able to interpret a driver's feedback and convert it into positive engineering changes. This only comes with experience.

Raikkonen and engineer Mark Slade worked together between 2002 and 2006 and Slade was also Vitaly Petrov's engineer at the Lotus team for a year (when it was known as Renault) before a brief stint with Michael Schumacher at Mercedes.

Slade's connection with the team and with Raikkonen has helped bridge a potential gap and allowed Raikkonen to settle in quickly, feeding into the team while feeling right at home with his most direct connection.

After two tough but promising races, China is next on the comeback trail and past results look good for Raikkonen. In six outings, he has recorded two third places, one second and one victory. And in one other a mechanical failure stole away another podium finish.

His garage has taken a couple of races to gel but it's quickly starting to shake off the cobwebs - and if promised aerodynamic upgrades offer another step forwards and Raikkonen can finally hook up qualifying AND also have a good race, then another podium in his China collection could be a fair bet.

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