It’s no secret that Kimi Raikkonen is the shortlist to replace the departing Mark Webber at Red Bull in 2014.
Lotus will be anxious not to see the 2007 champion go. Since his return to F1 last year Raikkonen has scored in all bar one of his races for them, claiming more than 70% of the points scored by the team.
But at this sensitive stage in deliberations over next year, Lotus have made some crucial errors where it matters most – on the track.
The Raikkonen-Lotus partnership began the year on a high, using the E21 chassis’s kindness to its tyres to excellent effect in Melbourne, where they won. But as the season has progressed the team’s strategic decisions have come under scrutiny:
Lotus ran a two-stop strategy for Raikkonen which helped him move ahead of his three-stopping rivals to start the year with a win.
In a rain-hit Q3, drivers who took a fresh set of intermediate tyres headed the field. Lotus got the call right but Raikkonen only manages seventh on the grid. He then received a grid penalty for impeding Nico Rosberg and finished the race seventh.
A two-stop strategy paid dividends again for Raikkonen, lifting him from eighth to second.
The team played to their car’s strength again by making one stop fewer than eventual winner Alonso. But Raikkonen lost time in traffic and, as in Malaysia, the team’s quickest pit stop was over a second slower than the best.
A race riddled with problems for Raikkonen: a two-place grid penalty was his fault but brake trouble, high fuel consumption and a slow pit stop were not. He finished tenth.
Lost a place to Alonso at the first round of pit stops but the real damage was done during the final Safety Car period. Lotus missed the chance to bring Raikkonen in for fresh tyres which left him vulnerable to those who had come in. He fell from second to fifth in the closing laps.
While Grosjean eked out 13 laps on his soft tyres at the start, Raikkonen pitted five laps earlier and fell into traffic. The Safety Car allowed him to regain lost ground, but a late pit stop saw him surrender the lead to Vettel, and although Lotus waved him past Grosjean (for the second race in a row) he was unable to catch the Red Bull. Strategic decision-making was clearly hampered by a radio communication problem.
The slip-up at Silverstone was one of the costlier errors but team principal Eric Boullier said it was unlikely to be a deal-breaker when it comes to securing Raikkonen’s services for next year: “Kimi?óÔé¼Ôäós an intelligent guy and he won?óÔé¼Ôäót let a single pit stop call define a decision like where to drive for 2014.”
But looking back over the last three races it’s clear Raikkonen has more missed opportunities to reflect on than just a single strategy decision.
One week later at the Nurburgring Raikkonen questioned whether the team had done the right thing by pitting him in the closing stages. “I?óÔé¼Ôäóm wondering if we should have done it,” he said after the race, “take a gamble and try to go to the end because the tyres were pretty OK, my speed was pretty OK so it was hard to know what happens in the next ten laps.”
However Lotus are “very comfortable” that bringing Raikkonen in was the right thing to do, as trackside operations director Alam Permane explains: “It?óÔé¼Ôäós very clear from our simulations that ?óÔé¼ÔÇ£ had his tyre degradation level continued at a steady rate ?óÔé¼ÔÇ£ [Vettel] would have quite easily been able to reel him in.
“While we are in no doubt about that, what is questionable is what would have happened if the degradation level had increased towards the end of the race. This was certainly the case for a number of other drivers who opted for that strategy, who we then saw being passed quite easily in the latter stages; something that would likely have happened to Kimi and subsequently dropped him back to fourth behind Fernando [Alonso] rather than a comfortable second with a fighting chance of victory.”
It matters as much whether they got the call right as whether Raikkonen has full confidence in the decisions they are making. Clearly it was playing on his mind after the race.
He has several factors to weigh when deciding his destination for 2014. Does he want to go up against a triple – potentially quadruple – world champion? Which team is the best bet to produce a winning car for next year’s regulations? Who will do more to accommodate his intolerance of PR work?
Events on the track will play a part as well, so Lotus’s recent troubles could not have come at a worse time.
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