For the first time in 2015, Kimi Raikkonen will enter a race weekend with nothing to lose when he takes to the track in Hungary.
Throughout the opening nine races of the season, there was a feeling that Raikkonen was constantly under the microscope, that he—despite his world-champion status and 20 grand prix victories—had something to prove either in his battle alongside Sebastian Vettel or in his fight for his Ferrari future.
Having beaten his team-mate on just one occasion thus far, however—as the four-time title winner has cemented his position as the Prancing Horse's prime focus—and with mounting speculation over the identity of Vettel's team-mate for 2016, it seems the damage has been done.
Bad luck, as they say, comes in threes. What appears to be Raikkonen's final season in Formula One will be defined by that three-race period between Monaco and Austria. This period began with him hitting the guardrail at Sainte Devote in FP3—severely compromising his qualifying preparations—and ended as he slid along the barrier on the back straight at the Red Bull Ring.
A decent upturn in form at Silverstone, where he outqualified Vettel on merit for the first time this year, was futile, and last week came the biggest indication yet that Raikkonen's career is coming to a close.
According to Corriere dello Sport (h/t Sky Sports), Ferrari have reached an agreement with Williams to sign Valtteri Bottas for €12 million for 2016, leaving Raikkonen, whose option with the team expires at the end of July, out in the cold.
The team's move to sign Bottas, if true, marks a considerable turnaround following Ferrari's comments in the immediate aftermath of April's Bahrain Grand Prix, the scene of Raikkonen's only podium finish of the season. Team boss Maurizio Arrivabene told Autosport's Ben Anderson and Lawrence Barretto:
I am really happy for Kimi. I can officially state that he's back.
He showed what a race animal he is. Kimi is giving the best when he is a bit in trouble...
If you're asking me if he deserves to renew the option now, I'm going to say yes.
But if I'm going to say yes, I do not want the driver to fall asleep.
The notion that Raikkonen performs at his best when his back is pinned against a wall is a myth, for the most memorable moments in the Finn's career have come on days when he has had nothing to lose.
Just as Giancarlo Fisichella, Raikkonen's final victim on the last lap of the 2005 Japanese Grand Prix, a race the then-McLaren driver won from 17th on the grid.
Just ask Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso, who entered the final two rounds of the 2007 season under the illusion that the championship battle was a two-horse race, only to finish as joint-runners up as Raikkonen was victorious in China and Brazil.
Raikkonen's career has been defined by his knack of producing ferocious performances when one least expects it, and it would be no surprise if he were to produce his best race of his second spell with Ferrari just as the team begin to plan a future without him.
The 35-year-old has always excelled at the Hungarian Grand Prix, often regarded as a home race for Finnish drivers, claiming seven podium finishes at the Budapest track. Even during his worst-ever season in 2014, he produced one of his cleanest drives of the year at the Hungaroring, salvaging sixth place after starting 16th.
And with Hungary being one of just four races on the 2015 calendar Vettel has failed to win, Raikkonen—should Williams revert back to their natural position of third in the pecking order—may be the closest challenger to Hamilton and Mercedes team-mate Nico Rosberg this weekend.
When drivers raise their form at the mid-season stage, they are often, rather cynically, accused of doing so with "contract time" in mind, trying to catch the eye of team bosses across the paddock in the hope of finding a seat in F1's annual game of musical chairs.
Yet should Raikkonen—who, per Crash.net, has already said he will retire should his Ferrari deal not be renewed—enjoy a resurgence of some kind in Hungary, it should not be interpreted as the act of a driver desperate to remind us of his talent.
It should not be seen as a former world champion, whose best days are unquestionably behind him, making a too-little-too-late attempt to protect his position from a bunch of upstarts.
Rather, it should be viewed as the performance of someone marking the beginning of the rest of his career.
Raikkonen will relish his freedom in Hungary.