Kimi Raikkonen's 2014 Season Is His Last Shot at True Formula 1 Greatness

Neil James@NeilosJamesFeatured ColumnistMarch 8, 2014

BAHRAIN, BAHRAIN - FEBRUARY 22:  Kimi Raikkonen of Finland and Ferrari talks at the drivers interview session following day four of Formula One Winter Testing at the Bahrain International Circuit on February 22, 2014 in Bahrain, Bahrain.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
Mark Thompson/Getty Images

Anyone who saw Kimi Raikkonen burst onto the Formula One scene in 2001 knew they were witnessing the arrival of someone very special.

He scored a point in his first race and showed more than a few flashes of brilliance throughout the course of the season. McLaren recognised his talent and after just one year in the midfield he had one of the most sought-after drives on the grid.

Packing at least as much natural talent as any driver of his generation, Raikkonen took to the front of the field like a duck to water. Two years after his debut, he was firmly established as one of the best drivers in F1.

Few people back then would have believed that, come 2014, he'd have just a single world championship to his name.

But that's exactly the position Raikkonen finds himself in today, for his is a story of criminally unfulfilled, even wasted, potential.

Most of the blame for this lies with his teams. In his 11 years of competing, Raikkonen has had a championship-worthy car on just four occasionsand he's never had a car which stood out as the clear best of the field.

It's difficult to say how much blame should be placed upon his own shoulders, because it's impossible to judge what impact his famously laid-back attitude has had on his career.

But what we can say is that this has been an era in which focused, dedicated and studious driverslike Michael Schumacher, Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettelhave overwhelmingly come out on top. So it may be fair to say his approach hasn't helped.

His liking of a drink and a party has also come under scrutiny. This video shows perhaps his most famous drunken misadventure:

Fortunately, Raikkonen had enough talent to get away with it.

The Finn's first shot at the title came in 2003, his third season. He drove well enough to have been champion in a McLaren which was, on balance, probably the equal of Michael Schumacher's Ferrari. The German took the title by two points.

Raikkonen should have won his first championship in 2005. He was by far the most impressive driver but woeful reliability and numerous grid penalties for engine changes handed the championship to Fernando Alonso.

A move to Ferrari in 2007 saw his luck change. In a season dominated by the Spygate scandal, Raikkonen benefited from a late-season slump from Lewis Hamilton and McLaren to claim the title by a single point.

The outlook moving forward was positive, then everything went wrong.

In 2008 his Ferrari was, by a small margin, the best car. But Raikkonen was, by a significant margin, the most disappointing driver.

He was out-performed by teammate Felipe Massa, who until that time had looked like a capable No. 2 and nothing more. It was the Brazilian who took the title fight to the final race, while Raikkonen seemed destabilised by rumours linking Alonso to his seat.

It wasn't that he'd lost pace. That was still there, evidenced by Raikkonen's habit of randomly setting fastest laps toward the end of races. You could almost hear him saying, "Hey guys, this is how fast I could have gone all race if I'd wanted to."

He set the fastest lap in 10 of the 18 races.

His bosses at Ferrari were less than amused, but Raikkonen had a long-term contract and they stuck with him in 2009. Sadly, his heart never seemed fully in it, and Ferrari paid him off to not drive for them in 2010.

Raikkonen took a break from F1 and a return did not seem likely.

Luca Bruno/Associated Press

But return he did, signing to drive for Lotus in 2012. Adapting instantly to the new car, he was on the pace right from the off and finished third in the drivers' championship. Raikkonen reeled off a record 27 points finishes, including victory in Abu Dhabi.

He won the opening race of the 2013 season and would have claimed third in the championship again, but he missed the final two races of the season to have back surgery.

This was the season in which Sebastian Vettel won his fourth consecutive world championship, prompting some to call him an all-time great.

Others disagreed, and the age-old debate of what truly constitutes "greatness" in F1 was re-opened.

Is it the number of championships, or how the championships are won? Magical race performances, or brilliant one-off qualifying runs? Natural talent, or how the talent is applied?

The answer is that it lies in all of those things and more. Numbers, style and, above all, performances combine to place a driver among the all-time greats.

And 2014 is Raikkonen's final chance to join them.

The Finn is now 34, and coming towards the end of his F1 career. After two seasons with a smaller team, he's back with the biggest of them all, Ferrari, for what will probably be his final two years.

Standing in his way is the man who, without realising it, cost him his first F1 career. Fernando Alonso is considered by many to be the benchmark driver of today, and Raikkonen is walking into his team.

It's testament to his ability that he's even being given a cat in hell's chance of coming out on top, but that is exactly what he needs to do.

And in one of the next two years, he has to beat everyone else as well.

The 2005 Japanese Grand Prix, one of Raikkonen's greatest drives.
The 2005 Japanese Grand Prix, one of Raikkonen's greatest drives.SHIZUO KAMBAYASHI/Associated Press

To be remembered as a great, Raikkonen has to banish the ghosts of 2008 and claim a second world championship. If his career ends with just one title from 13 attempts, the record books will soon forget the close calls and magnificent drives.

They'll mostly talk about wasted potential and missed opportunities. Adding a second title would change that.

It doesn't have to come in 2014, but this is the year that matters. If he can establish himself at Ferrari as, at the very least, Alonso's equal, he'll enter 2015 with the confidence and status to mount a serious challenge.

And if the Spaniard departs at the end of the year, Ferrari will probably sign him a "helper" for 2015.

But if he finds himself playing No. 2 to Alonso, Raikkonen's head will drop. If this happensand we saw it before, in 2008he'll almost certainly be a No. 2 for the remainder of his Ferrari career.

Thirty years from now, Kimi Raikkonen will be remembered as one of two things. A hugely gifted driver who never quite fulfilled his limitless potential; or a brilliant all-time great with multiple titles to his name.

There'll be no grey area; it will be one or the other.

And this season will go a long way to determining which.



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