Before his return to Ferrari for 2014, Kimi Raikkonen had finished ahead of his team-mate in the Formula One drivers' championship in all but three of his 11 seasons in the sport. The exceptions were his first two years in F1 and the 2008 season—the year after his lone world championship—when Felipe Massa outscored him and nearly won the title at the final race.
Even after the now-36-year-old Finn's hiatus in 2010 and 2011, he came back and won two races in two seasons for Lotus, finishing well ahead of Romain Grosjean both years.
But since Raikkonen re-signed with Ferrari for the 2014 season, which coincided with F1's introduction of V6 hybrid power units and new, lower-downforce aerodynamic regulations, he has been dominated by two successive team-mates.
Ferrari produced a much better car and engine in 2015 than the previous year, so Raikkonen's overall results were better than in 2014. But how much of that improvement is down to the car? Was he actually better relative to his team-mate and to the performance that could be expected from the Ferrari SF15-T?
Recently, Raikkonen told ESPN F1's Laurence Edmondson: "It's not like suddenly I am becoming a worse driver. ... It has improved [since 2014], speed wise it is a lot better. It's not nice, but I have to say it: it has not been a very good year. It's still been a lot better than last year, but it's no fun sometimes when you are having a difficult time."
In 2014, Fernando Alonso outscored Raikkonen 161 to 55. Last year, Sebastian Vettel beat him 278 to 150.
Granted, Alonso and Vettel are two of the best drivers of their generation, but Raikkonen was in the same realm...was.
The past two years have put a dent in the Finn's reputation as he has struggled to get comfortable with the new generation of F1 cars. NBC commentator Will Buxton suggested on his personal blog in 2014 that Raikkonen was struggling with the new brake-by-wire system and Ferrari's power steering.
In 2015, Raikkonen felt more comfortable, as Ferrari team principal Maurizio Arrivabene pushed his team to build a car that better-suited the 2007 champion's driving style, per Autosport's Ben Anderson and Lawrence Barretto.
Looking at the point totals, this seems to have paid off. Alonso more than tripled Raikkonen's score in 2014 and Vettel not-quite-doubled the Finn's points-haul last season.
And look at Raikkonen's average finishing position relative to his team-mates' (excluding all DNFs and races where a driver was classified but did not actually finish the race).
|Season||Driver||Average Finishing Position|
In 2014, Raikkonen finished an average of more than 3.5 places behind Alonso. Last year, he cut the gap to Vettel to fewer than two places.
Raikkonen's 2015 performance was also more in line with what could be expected from his car. That might be surprising, given the SF15-T was the clear second-best car on the grid and he only finished in the top four eight times in 19 races, but it is true.
In 2014, Ferrari had the third- or, more likely, fourth-best car on the grid (they finished fourth in the constructors' standings, although had Raikkonen matched Alonso's performance, they would have challenged Williams for third).
Therefore, Ferrari could have expected to finish seventh and eighth each race, assuming no retirements ahead of them. Yet Raikkonen's average finishing position was 9.17 (and remember, his own retirements do not affect that number—they are excluded from the calculation).
With the second-best car in 2015, Ferrari could reasonably expect third- and fourth-place finishes. Raikkonen didn't quite meet that average, but he was closer than in 2014.
So yes, a more competitive car obviously helped Raikkonen improve on his 2014 results, but he also performed better—both relative to his team-mate and relative to what could be expected from his car.
What does that improvement tell us for 2016?
Well, it demonstrates that Raikkonen's skills have not entered some irreversible decline. He had trouble adjusting to the new cars in 2014, but he adapted and was more comfortable in 2015.
There may still be better options out there if Ferrari are looking to maximise their position in the constructors' table, but Raikkonen's performance did not hurt the team last year the way it did in 2014.
And if Raikkonen can continue his improvement in 2016, as he becomes even more comfortable with the new breed of F1 cars, Ferrari could be in position to finally challenge Mercedes on a regular basis. F1 needs its stars fighting at the front, and Raikkonen is one of the most popular drivers on the grid—as the results of the Grand Prix Drivers Association's fan survey showed last year.
If he wins, the sport wins, and Raikkonen's 2015 results should give his many fans hope that we may see him on the top step of the podium a few more times before the end of his career.
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