Kimi Raikkonen "Melting?" Is The Iceman's Title Chance Over?

Andy ShawCorrespondent ISeptember 10, 2008

After crashing out of second place in the Belgian Grand Prix, which could have been victory once Lewis Hamilton's penalty was applied, Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen has insisted he is not yet giving up in the fight for the 2008 F1 world championship.

The reigning world champion has not won a race since the Spanish Grand Prix in April, and currently sits fourth in the world championship, 19 points adrift of leader Lewis Hamilton and 17 shy of his Ferrari teammate, Felipe Massa.

With five races remaining this season, however, anything is possible. The 2007 season provided evidence that nothing is ever over until it is over.

Raikkonen was 17 points down on Lewis Hamilton with just two races to go last year, and ended the season as champion.

Additionally, one stage in last year's season saw the Finn 26 points behind the championship leader, making his comeback the greatest by an eventual world champion since 1976.

With that in mind, Raikkonen has time on his side and certainly should not be written off as the 2008 F1 world championship reaches its conclusion. But can the Finn really overcome the odds for the second season in a row?

In reality, the situation this season is very different to the one Raikkonen faced in 2007.

After the Italian Grand Prix last year, in which Felipe Massa retired with broken suspension, Raikkonen became Ferrari's sole hope for the world championship against the two McLaren drivers, involved in a bitter battle for supremacy within the team as well as for the title.

Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso were both in world championship contention until the very last race, meaning that they were taking points away from one another throughout the season, which allowed Raikkonen to close the gap in the final few races.

Had McLaren chosen to exclusively back one or the other of their drivers in the latter stages of 2007, one of them would almost certainly have won the championship.

But, the Woking based team, practically torn apart by the rivalry that existed between the two drivers, kept them on equal footing until the very end of the season.

This year, Hamilton has a reliable if unspectacular number two in Heikki Kovalainen. Although the team vehemently denies that Kovalainen is being used as a rear-gunner in Hamilton's challenge for the world championship, it is becoming increasingly clear that the young Finn cannot match Hamilton for race pace.

Therefore, the sensible thing to do is demote him to a support role for the remainder of the season. If McLaren have not already done this, they are surely not far from doing so.

Moreover, even if Kovalainen is "equal" with Hamilton for the rest of the year, he does not appear to be fast enough to take crucial points away from his British teammate.

Rather than sneak up on a team in turmoil as he did last year, Raikkonen will now have to overcome the might of a squad that is firing on all cylinders, still looking to compensate for the championship they came so close to winning last season, and giving near exclusive support to a single driver.

The other challenge Raikkonen faces this year is a much improved teammate. Felipe Massa made a couple of critical errors at the beginning of the season, but has bounced back from these mistakes to firmly take control of the reins at Ferrari.

For much of the season now, the Brazilian has looked much faster and more relaxed than his sometimes erratic teammate.  A perfect example came at Spa, where he nursed his car home in the torrid conditions to collect second place (and, after Hamilton's penalty, victory).

Raikkonen, however, clambered out of his wrecked car against the Belgian circuit's unforgiving walls, having pursued the hope of victory too incautiously in conditions that demanded patience and control.

One more problem for Raikkonen has been inconsistency. At times, as in Malaysia, Spain and France (before his exhaust came loose and demoted him to second), he is unstoppably quick and easily has the measure of his teammate.

But, on other occasions, such as in Hungary and Valencia, he is dogged with qualifying difficulties that compromise his race. Even during the race in Valencia, on the rare occasions that the Finn was in clear air, he was far slower than Massa.

If Raikkonen wants to win the 2008 world championship, he'll have to re-assert himself over his improving teammate, go all out to win every race, and hope Massa and Hamilton run into trouble along the way.

This, of course, is what Raikkonen does best, and he did it to brilliant effect last season; but will it be a case of too little, too late this year?

With overtaking so difficult in Formula One, Raikkonen's qualifying form will need to take a rapid and dramatic upturn if he is to stand a realistic chance of claiming the world title.

In public, at least, Raikkonen has shown no signs of wishing to support Massa in the title race for the rest of the season.

But his employers may feel differently; Kimi was able to rely on Massa's support at the end of last season (and without Massa letting him by to win in Brazil, Raikkonen would not have won the title).

With Massa now in a position to challenge for the championship, Ferrari may expect Raikkonen to return the favor.

If this is the case, Kimi only has a limited amount of time to prove that he is still in contention for the world championship before Ferrari makes the final decision to exclusively back Massa for the title.

Lesser drivers would probably have given up by this stage, presented with so many difficulties facing their world championship challenge. Raikkonen, however, does not give up easily, and fighting back from a deficit is his element.

This can be attested to his faithful (if ultimately fruitless) pursuit of the 2005 world championship, and his comeback from mid-season despondency in 2007.

As Kimi has shown us before in his F1 career, you can never write him off. But the obstacles he will have to overcome to triumph this season may be more than even he can cope with.