Kimi Raikkonen’s Formula One comeback with Lotus has come to a disappointing end two races early.
But Raikkonen’s return to the sport with Lotus has been a clear success, including two grand prix victories and a record-breaking run of points finishes.
As Renault, Lotus had suffered a poor 2011 season, due in part to losing lead driver Robert Kubica during the off-season due to injury. After scoring podiums in the opening two races of the year they never troubled the top three again as their radical front-exiting exhausts failed to deliver the expected gains in performance.
For 2012 the newly-renamed Lotus team tempted Raikkonen back from a two-year sabbatical to fill the hole left by Kubica’s absence. It quickly proved to be a productive relationship.
Results didn’t come immediately: Raikkonen was eliminated in Q1 in his comeback at Melbourne and dropped out of the points with degrading tyres in China. But at the very next race he pushed Sebastian Vettel hard for victory and took second – the first podium since his return. Remarkably, it began a record-breaking run of 27 consecutive points finishes.
Consistent points-scoring kept Raikkonen in the hunt for the title against better-equipped rivals such as Vettel. All that was missing was a comeback victory and in Abu Dhabi it finally arrived.
Raikkonen was poised to pounce when trouble struck race leader Lewis Hamilton in the closing stages. After brushing aside the warnings of his race engineer to preserve his car with the immediately immortalised words “I know what I’m doing”, Raikkonen kept Fernando Alonso back to score the first win for a car bearing the name Lotus in 25 years.
He began his second season with the team on a similar high, winning again in Australia. Lotus’s championship chances looked very promising in the opening weeks of the championship as teams came to terms with Pirelli’s most aggressive generation of tyres. The E21 proved especially kind to them, but as the season progressed and their rivals grew more familiar with the tyres, Lotus’s edge gradually diminished, and they haven’t won another race since.
The mid-season change to a more conservative tyre construction on safety grounds did not aid their cause, particularly in the case of Raikkonen, who was doubly stung by new restrictions on camber and other tyre set-up variables. His increasingly confident team mate Romain Grosjean grew more threatening, particularly in Korea, where Raikkonen produced an inspired and opportunistic pass to take second place off the other Lotus.
But what ultimately drove Raikkonen from the team was not performance but money. He admitted as much after his return to Ferrari in 2014 was announced, and on the Abu Dhabi race weekend revealed he had received no money from the team all year.
Frustrations had come to the surface in India where Raikkonen, increasingly troubled by his tyres, was slow to respond to his team’s instructions to let Grosjean through and forced his team mate off the road at one point.
Angry words were exchanged on the radio for which Lotus later apologised. That seemed a surprising step at the time as it’s not unusual for emotions to run high on the team radio, nor for colourful language to be employed. Once the context of Raikkonen’s payment shortfall was known Lotus’s eagerness to placate their driver made rather more sense.
Abu Dhabi, the scene of their shared victory 12 months earlier, turned out to be Raikkonen’s final race weekend for Lotus. It was an unmitigated disaster.
Raikkonen was thrown out of qualifying due to a technical infringement, one the team had fallen foul of previously with Grosjean’s car, but which the stewards were unwilling to tolerate a repeat of. Having chosen to start at the back of the grid rather from the pits, Raikkonen’s race ended when he nudged Giedo van der Garde’s Caterham at the first corner, breaking his suspension.
One week later Lotus confirmed his time with them was at an end, citing a need for Raikkonen to undergo back surgery before beginning his 2014 campaign with Ferrari. Under the circumstances it’s not surprising many have seen an element of convenience in the timing of the news, though Raikkonen did suffer back pain during the Singapore race weekend.
Raikkonen and Lotus always seemed well suited to each other. They understood his preference to turn up, drive and then leave, and accommodated it as far as was practical. The team’s irreverent social media presence perfected the art of bringing humour to anything involving their undemonstrative yet hero-worshipped star.
Whether Ferrari have taken note and are prepared to take the same approach to tease the best out of Raikkonen will be a fascinating storyline in 2014.
Kimi Raikkonen at Lotus, 2012-13 in pictures
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Images ?é?® Lotus/LAT, GP3/LAT, Korean GP/Sutton, Ferrari/Ercole Colombo, MMP74