Many guesses are being thrown around for the driver who will get to wear red alongside Sebastian Vettel, and skeptics aren’t sure if Kimi Raikkonen is up to the game. I believe it would be sensible for the Scuderia to retain him for 2017.
Let’s have a look at his career since he joined Sauber in 2001-
2001: 9 points, 10th in WDC
2002: 24 points, 6th in WDC
2003: 91 points, 2nd in WDC
2004: 45 points, 7th in WDC
2005: 112 points, 2nd in WDC
2006: 65 points, 5th in WDC
2007: 110 points, 1st in WDC
2008: 75 points, 3rd in WDC
2009: 48 points, 6th in WDC
Exodus to WRC (not counting NASCAR gigs)
2010: 25 points, 10th in standings
2011: 34 points, 10th in standings
Return to F1 with Lotus
2012: 207 points, 3rd in WDC
2013: 183 points, 5th in WDC
2014: 55 points, 12th in WDC
2015: 150 points, 4th in WDC
2016: 81* points, 4th* in WDC at the moment
If we look at the downforce-centric, high power era with less dependence on mechanical grip of tyres which lasted till 2008, Kimi always managed to bid for a title contention when the car was there for him (excluding 2002, 2004 and 2006, McLaren was plagued with severe reliability issues during those years). When the FIA decided to cut down downforce and increase mechanical grip by introducing slick tyres, he lost his edge.
Even his rallying days didn’t bring any meaningful addition to his trophy cabinet (forget downforce and grip, you’re lucky if you get even some proper traction). Now when Kimi came back to F1, the designers added back the downforce they lost in 2009 in various stages of development (basically copying what Red Bull was doing), and he had found his lost mojo, especially on the harder tyres of Pirelli. A regular on the podium even with a slower car, winning when luck favoured even by a little bit, till the end of 2013. 2014 was when all factors turned against him(less power from the Ferrari hybrid, “lazy” response of car, difficulty in getting the tyres to work).
But 2015 and 2016 has seen him jump back to form - 2015 was more of a transition phase (adjusting to a faster but sensitive car as well to the new people joining the team - well everybody knows of his different approach to interpersonal skills), but this year he is just on the heels of his teammate, mounting the challenge for the Scuderia whenever the wannabe-Schumacher was hamstrung. He has also proved himself a team player by letting Vettel pass in Baku.
From 2017 onwards F1 is returning to the high downforce era with wider and grippier tyres - the good old days for Kimi, maybe even better.
As many experts have pointed out, Kimi is a very car-sensitive driver who can do the job only when the car is suited to his driving style, which demands a car with high downforce, which can deliver performance at high-speed corners. He also needs tyres which last longer and perform better in temperature fluctuations (several instances in 2012 and 2015 when he was very close to the pacesetters on the harder compound but the opposite happened with the softer compound, during the races).
In short, he is the exact opposite of the typical Finnish driver, who are bred on the gravelled, icy roads of Finland, learning to race with low traction. Whereas Kimi needs very high grip levels even on asphalt, much like Sebastian Vettel in his Red Bull glory days.
2017 is most probably turning back to the favor of both drivers, but it is just one reason to contract Kimi back. The second and equally important reason is that the pair suits to the way the team works during a race weekend. The Scuderia are known for a clear 1–2 driver hierarchy and they plan to keep Vettel at the centre of the development for the long term, of which Kimi happily approves.
The two are great friends who work together surprisingly well (ever noticed this, Mercedes?). He is what you get when you combine Rubens Barrichello, David Coulthard and Mark Webber together. Competitive, more of following you lap after lap waiting for a mistake to happen and less of pushing you out of the track (I am explicitly pointing at you, Mr Hamilton), yet the team is above his own ambitions.
A lack of options for Ferrari
Even if they decide to let Kimi go, their options are limited. Daniel Ricciardo has extended his contract with Red Bull (a sensible decision as the rules switch back to their strengths), even if he didn’t, Vettel wouldn’t have approved of it (no matter what he says in front of the press, the fact is that Ricciardo made a Mark Webber of him in that same team).
Valtteri Bottas, Sergio Perez, Romain Grosjean are good options, but all of them will come with championship aspirations, not good for the team structure. Even these three would think twice before signing up because that would mean playing number two to Vettel for a long time.
They are just about to reach the peaks of their careers and the last thing they would want is to play second fiddle. Carlos Sainz, Felipe Nasr and Daniil Kvyat are even better options, but Ferrari has historically avoided inexperienced drivers, especially considering the fact that none of them has ever driven in a high downforce, high grip Formula One car.
Nico Rosberg/Lewis Hamilton might have an outside chance, but there needs to be enough motivation from both sides because that move would never be voluntary, they would be crazy to leave the most powerful team F1 has seen in history by their choice. The management at the Silver Arrows have Wehrlein waiting in the wings, they can easily throw one of them out if the fireworks between them burned the shop down.
Ferrari, again will have Vettel issues if one of them boards up, but maybe they might have a rethink of the team structure and go the Mercedes way (not recommended). Felipe Massa won’t come back. Jenson Button maybe, especially if McLaren is desperate to show him the door as Stoffel Vandoorne is waiting, but he might prefer Williams to Ferrari to sign off his career.
Nico Hulkenberg won’t be preferred again due to his inconvenient dimensions without the extra racecraft to compensate. Guittierez, Vergne, etcetera are the last options if Kimi leaves by himself and nothing works out which seems to be very unlikely. Raikkonen is the best option Ferrari have at the moment and that should not change for the 2017 season either.