Watch out for a Raikkonen renaissance at the Belgian Grand Prix

It has been a difficult season for him, but the Hungarian Grand Prix showed some light at the end of the tunnel for Kimi Raikkonen. Since rejoining Ferrari at the start of the season, he has finished inside the points seven times, but the race at the Hungaroring was the first time he had finished inside the top six. He is also yet to finish ahead of team mate Fernando Alonso in a race.

He currently sits 12th in the championship which, if the season finished today, would be his worst drivers’ championship finish ever. This includes his maiden Formula One season back in 2001 for Sauber which he ended tenth, before which he had only a season of car racing experience (Max Verstappen, take note).

The crash at Silverstone might have grabbed the headlines but it is Raikkonen’s consistent lack of performance which is notable. It is as if old habits have returned. Kimi’s F1 career is of course split into two distinct parts, before and after his two-year break to try his hand at rallying. But even within those two sections, it is almost as if there have been two drivers taking his place.

 

Belgian Grand Prix betting odds:

Lewis Hamilton -143

Nico Rosberg +160

Daniel Ricciardo +1600

(All odds provided by Intertops.eu are accurate as of today and subject to change)

 

At McLaren between 2002 and 2006, Raikkonen was regarded as one of the fastest drivers ever, and was only robbed of the 2005 championship by an incredibly unreliable car. But after moving to Ferrari, his performances became erratic. Even in winning the championship in 2007, he was unconvincing, with team mate Felipe Massa, previously (and since) regarded as an unremarkable driver, proving a match over their two-and-a-half years as team mates.

Throughout his time at Ferrari, speculation was rampant that he had lost motivation, perhaps encouraged by his typically Finnish approach to dealing with the media (i.e. barely) and alcohol (i.e. drinking lots of it). When it was announced he was being replaced by Fernando Alonso at the team, it was widely believed that he was being paid to leave and do something else, such as flinging Citroens between and into trees.

Which leads to one theory doing the rounds this year – that Raikkonen’s return to F1 in 2012 with Lotus was primarily motivated by money. This shouldn’t really be a shock, but there’s more to it: basically that after Kimi’s Ferrari pay-off finished, he needed to replace that source of income, so he needed to return to F1 with the purpose of getting back into Ferrari, after which he could go back to not caring. Thus, it would explain his exceptional first two seasons at Lotus and his sudden drop-off in performance this year.

But to be honest, this all seems a bit too cynical. To assume that Raikkonen had the next three years mapped out when he returned ignores the reality of the situation. Lotus ran out of money last year, to the point where Kimi wasn’t even being paid on time, and if you’re a former world champion who has finished third and fifth in the last two championships, you have enough market value to avoid this. The fact that Lotus have continued to tail off dramatically this season suggests he made the correct call to leave.

 

However, rejoining Ferrari might not have been the most sensible move, even if it made sense at the time. Yes, he was rejoining the team with whom he won the championship, but he was never entirely comfortable there, and he was to be driving alongside Fernando Alonso, probably the fastest and most consistent driver in F1 who has outperformed his team mates and machinery year in year out for a decade.

Before the start of the 2014 season, there were forecasts of tension and bust-ups as the two former champions battled for victory. There has been none of this, mainly because Kimi hasn’t got close enough to create any tension – not only has he been way behind his team mate, but Ferrari have had their worst season for over twenty years, with Alonso doing a remarkable job in putting himself fourth in the standings.

But the Belgian Grand Prix provides a massive opportunity for Raikkonen to kick on, as it is with Spa-Francorchamps that he has his best relationship within the sport. He won here for McLaren in 2004 and 2005, Ferrari in 2007 and 2009, and came close to a win in 2008 but for a mistake while battling Lewis Hamilton on a damp track. He also finished third here in 2012.

If there are races missing here, it’s because they either weren’t held (2003, 2006) or because he retired due to mechanical problems (2001, 2002, 2013). In short: the guy’s quick here.

 

Spa is one of the most unorthodox circuits on the calendar, with its high-speed sweeping corners that would never be allowed today and its erratic, unpredictable climate. The races here are often amongst the most exciting of the season, although it’s going to have to be a special one this year to compete with Bahrain and Hungary.

Theoretically Mercedes should once again have the advantage in pace, and 2010 Spa winner Lewis Hamilton will begin as favourite, but the teams behind are closing, and as we saw in Hungary, they will be on the defensive if it starts to rain.

Raikkonen’s expertise here will be an enormous help to Ferrari, who sit third in the constructors’ championship (albeit mostly due to Alonso’s contributions) but are rapidly being caught by Williams, who have emerged as Mercedes’ closest challengers in the dry. Ferrari haven’t gone a season without a win since 1993, when Jean Todt arrived to kick-start the transformation of the team into world-beaters once again.

 

There are rumours of driver changes for next season or beyond, including the possible arrival of Sebastian Vettel, but in the medium-term, it seems as if the team’s decline could only be stemmed by the arrival of another Todt to transform the way the team is run into a more efficient unit.

However, that won’t happen overnight. In the short-term, this may be their best opportunity for a victory for the rest of the season, and it’s certainly Raikkonen’s best shot of some silverware.

 

Betting Instinct tip – Kimi Raikkonen to finish on the podium this weekend is +1400 with AllYouBet.ag

 

Sports blogger JamesJAMES BENNETT is a History MPhil/PhD student, who writes about soccer, Formula 1 and the NFL in his spare time to pay for his studies. He is also a Torquay United fan. He publishes articles in his sports blog, and you can follow him on Twitter and Google+.

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Bahrain Grand Prix – Mercedes set to continue dominance in the desert

As Formula One approaches its 900th world championship grand prix in Bahrain this weekend, it’s worth remembering that some of its previous milestone races have thrown up some big surprises. The 800th race was the infamous 2008 Singapore Grand Prix, won by Renault’s Fernando Alonso after Nelson Piquet Jr deliberately crashed early in the race to bring out the safety car. The 700th was the even more dramatic 2003 Brazilian Grand Prix, a modern classic in the wet won by Giancarlo Fisichella for minnows Jordan.

The 600th, the 1997 Argentine Grand Prix, was narrowly won by Jacques Villeneuve of Williams ahead of Ferrari’s Eddie Irvine, while the 500th, the 1990 Australian Grand Prix in Adelaide, saw Benetton’s Nelson Piquet fend off a charging Nigel Mansell in his Ferrari.

 

Formula 1 Bahrain Grand Prix Betting Odds:

Lewis Hamilton – 2.00

Nico Rosberg – 3.00

Sebastian Vettel – 8.00

(All odds provided by Intertops.eu are accurate as of today and subject to change)

 

It is also the tenth anniversary of the first Bahrain Grand Prix, and to add to the spectacle this weekend, the race will be held under the lights at night, a move which may make little difference to the race but does at least make the cars look nice. The Bahrain authorities is no stranger to attention-grabbing moves such as this: in 2010, for the season opener, they used a longer circuit layout, which ultimately led to a terrible race, while in 2011, they decided to brutally clamp down on anti-government protests, which led to the race being cancelled altogether.

But with memories of the violent repression now conveniently forgotten by the F1 paddock (if not by the rest of us), everything is carrying on as before. The only difference is that there is a new team at the front. As expected, Mercedes are the team to beat, with Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton taking a win each from the first two rounds.

Hamilton has been on pole in both races, and has looked the faster driver of the pair. But he has never won in Bahrain; the most notable thing he has ever done here is driving into the back of former team mate Alonso on the second lap in 2008, ruining his race. Rosberg hasn’t won here either, but he did make his debut at the Sakhir Circuit in 2006, with an impressive charge from the back in his Williams.

 

The Mercedes team has won here before, albeit under the Brawn GP name in 2009, with Jenson Button at the wheel. Judging by their dominance in the first two weekends, they are comfortable favourites for this race.

But the last two Bahrain Grands Prix have been won by Sebastian Vettel, and you’d not count him out this time. Reports of Red Bull’s demise were greatly exaggerated, with Vettel finishing 3rd in Malaysia after Daniel Ricciardo was disqualified from 2nd place in Australia. Vettel even managed to make the front row of the grid at Sepang, but that was in the wet; rain on the Arabian desert island is highly unlikely.

 

So too is a win for anyone else. McLaren are strongly suggesting they expect to struggle in the next few races, with their car proving something of a disappointment so far. Ferrari have been equally underwhelming, though Alonso has picked up two 4th places to lie 3rd in the championship, a point behind Hamilton. Kimi Raikkonen’s race in Malaysia was ruined by Kevin Magnussen’s front wing on the opening lap, and so desperately needs some points from Bahrain.

But above all else, the eyes of the F1 paddock will be on Williams this weekend. In Malaysia, Felipe Massa ignored team orders requesting he let team mate Valtteri Bottas through. But this wasn’t just any old team order; Bottas was on (slightly) fresher tyres, and the team believed he was fast enough to pass Button ahead. Massa disagreed.

 

The added complication was revealed afterwards by the team; they revealed that if Bottas hadn’t found a way around Button, they would ask him to allow Massa back ahead, given that he was ahead fair and square in the first place. The implication of this is that Massa thought Bottas would probably fail to pass Button but then not give the place back.

Overruling team orders in F1 is not going to make you popular, especially at Williams, the team that always puts the interests of the team above that of the driver. But there is further context: Massa has just endured seven years of being told to move over for his team mate at Ferrari, where he played second fiddle to Michael Schumacher, Raikkonen and Alonso.

Asking him to move over after just two races at his new team was always going to be a sensitive issue, especially as they used the words ‘Valtteri is faster than you’, an echo of the message he received at Hockenheim in 2010, when the team asked him to yield the race lead to Alonso.

 

For a man that has been through a lot over the last few years, it is understandable that Massa ould be reluctant to agree to something that was likely going to lead to him getting criticism after, whether it be that he has disobeyed the team or that he’s ‘losing his competitive edge’. The lack of serious consequences for disobeying the team was the clinching point.

Williams have handled the situation poorly: they sacrificed driver and team morale for the sake of trying to get two more points. In the current climate (Multi-21 et al), it is perhaps naive to assume drivers will agree to every team order. Massa is not blameless, but the revelations after the race suggest he doesn’t trust Bottas, and that he didn’t want to be left exposed to another sucker punch. Williams might believe that drivers are expendable parts just the same as any nut and bolt, but they are human beings who make human decisions.

 

Massa and Williams (free of Martini logos for this weekend in the Middle East) now head to a circuit where the Brazilian won in 2007 and 2008 for Ferrari. After the furore of Malaysia, he has to deliver; Williams have had a disappointing start to the year after the promise of success, and he has already upset his team and his team mate. He needs at least a solid points finish, or it could already be the beginning of the end of his long career.

Betting Instinct Tip – Felipe Massa to silence the doubters with a podium finish is 5.50 with Intertops.eu

 

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Sports blogger JamesJAMES BENNETT (James) is a History MPhil/PhD student, who writes about soccer, Formula 1 and the NFL in his spare time to pay for his studies. He is also a Torquay United fan. He publishes articles in his sports blog, and you can follow him on Twitter and Google+.