Kimi Raikkonen: Just how good was he?
Kimi Raikkonen retired from Formula 1 at the end of the 2021 season. The former world champion has been an enigma throughout his career, amazing everyone with his ability to perform on the track and his unwittingly funny quips off it.
He has earned many accolades which even made him the highest-paid driver on the grid when he was driving for Ferrari. The Finn has also been able to maintain his popularity despite a considerable drop in competitiveness over the years.
The question though, with Kimi Raikkonen leaving the sport for good, is: 'Just how good was he?' In this piece, we try to look at just how good the Iceman was and what kind of legacy he leaves behind.
Immediate Impact (2001-2002)
Kimi Raikkonen started making waves in the junior category very early in his career and caught the eye of Peter Sauber in 2000. After just a single year in single-seater car racing, Raikkonen impressed the big bosses at Sauber with his speed and was promptly signed up.
There was speculation around how good the very inexperienced Raikkonen would turn out to be. His single year of car racing wasn't much by Formula 1 standards at the time.
All these doubts were, however, dispelled in his very first season in which Raikkonen would prove what a talent he really was. After witnessing significant flashes of speed throughout the season, everyone in the paddock knew that the new young driver from Finland was something special.
Raikkonen had impressed so much that McLaren promptly signed the Finnish driver for the 2002 season when Mika Hakkinen decided he just didn't have the fire left to compete in F1. In his very first year with McLaren, despite struggling with reliability throughout the season, Raikkonen would pick up as many as four podium finishes and cement his place as one of the top drivers on the grid.
Such was the level of his performance that Michael Schumacher too singled out the Finn as one of the rising prospects in F1 at the time.
Kimi Raikkonen as One of the Elites and the title win with Ferrari (2003-2007)
Kimi Raikkonen leveled up even further in 2003 as it appeared that McLaren had finally produced a car that was capable of challenging for the title. Throughout the season, Raikkonen, Juan Pablo Montoya, and Michael Schumacher would fight it out for the championship. The season will also featured Kimi picking up his first win in Formula 1 in Malaysia.
What also became evident was the level of consistency the Finn was able to display throughout the season. McLaren was arguably, on average, the slowest out of the trio of itself, Williams and Ferrari. Raikkonen, however, would be the most consistent driver throughout the season. Had it not been for Ferrari and Michael Schumacher's late competitive surge, Raikkonen would have been the champion in 2003.
As it turned out, though, Raikkonen finished the season second in the championship behind the German, cementing his place amongst the elites of the sport.
The 2004 season saw McLaren perform horribly and left Raikkonen with no chance of a title challenge. Things took a turn for the better in 2005, and, in the eyes of many, the F1 world saw for the first time what Kimi Raikkonen in prime looked like.
Although Fernando Alonso ended up winning the title rather comfortably, Kimi Raikkonen was the driver of the season in the eyes of many. 2005 was the season when the Finn was not only considered the fastest driver on the grid, but his placing was rather undisputed. He picked up seven wins that season and would have picked up many more, and the title as well, if not for the poor reliability he suffered from throughout the year.
Some spectacular performances like the race at Suzuka, Spa, or even the one at Monaco, were evidence of the level at which Raikkonen was driving.
Moving on from 2005, when McLaren would under-deliver yet again in 2006 with an uncompetitive car, Raikkonen would pack his bags and move to Ferrari for 2007.
The 2007 season was a redemption of sorts for the Finn. He took an early lead in the championship with a win in his very first race as a Ferrari driver. Raikkonen, however, would fall down the standings as Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso, driving for McLaren at the time, would take the battle to another level while Ferrari struggled for competitiveness.
As the season unfolded, however, Alonso and Hamilton would constantly trip over each other, providing the perfect opportunity for Raikkonen to pick up the pieces.
The Finn made the most of the situation by leveling up his performances. He would clinch his first-ever world championship in the final race of the season.
In so many ways, this was vindication for the amount of hard work he had put in over the years and the litany of bad luck he had to endure to finally realize his dream.
Fall from grace (2008-09)
It was after the biggest triumph of his career that something seemingly changed with Kimi Raikkonen. In 2008, he still displayed the kind of speed that helped him become the champion the previous year. What he also displayed, surprisingly, was a lack of urgency when it came to the title challenge.
The intent that was there before was lacking now and it showed. The 2008 season even saw him lose out to his team-mate at Ferrari. He was resigned to playing the role of the second driver and helping Felipe Massa in the latter's title challenge.
The fall in competitiveness saw Ferrari sign Fernando Alonso as Raikkonen's replacement for the 2010 season.
Back with a bang(2012-2013)
The next few years saw Kimi Raikkonen try his hand at rallying with limited success. When Lotus came calling in 2012, however, the Finn would sign up with the Enstone-based unit.
Before his return, there was intrigue yet again around Raikkonen, especially around how he will fare in Formula 1 after a two-year layoff. More importantly, though, the ghosts of the 2008-09 season were still quite fresh in the minds of everyone in the paddock. Not everyone was confident that Raikkonen could return and perform at a very high level at Lotus.
In the 2012 season, however, he would slowly put all of these doubts to rest. In a season where being consistent and putting together results race after race was the secret recipe for success, Raikkonen would shine the brightest. He would consistently extract the best possible results from the car and perform at the level of the other elite drivers on the grid.
In a season where he was expected to merely be a journeyman, Kimi Raikkonen would finish 3rd in the standings with a famous win at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. For those who don't know, it was this race that featured the famous 'Leave me alone, I know what I am doing' team radio.
The 2013 season further proved to the doubters that Raikkonen was still driving at a very high level and would see him score as many as eight podiums that season.
At this juncture, was he the fastest driver on the grid? No, he wasn't. He was, however, fast and consistent enough to cause a bother to the best of them on the grid.
Return to anonymity (2014 to retirement)
For the 2014 season, Kimi Raikkonen would switch camps to a familiar home. He would move back to Ferrari on what was a very lucrative contract at the time. It was during this time that the Iceman would make his return to anonymity.
The 2014 season saw him return to the Scuderia, a team that was focused on making Fernando Alonso the world champion. Raikkonen was pretty much a forgotten entity and that remained the case even after Sebastian Vettel joined the team. While Kimi's performances did improve to an extent, the driver that was feared by everyone on the grid in 2005 was just not there anymore. Raikkonen turned up for Ferrari, did whatever he could, and then went back home.
In 2019, Ferrari decided to allow young Charles Leclerc the opportunity to drive for the Italian team. This meant Raikkonen would eventually find a new home in Alfa Romeo Sauber and would spend three seasons driving a car that was, on a good day, a midfield competitor.
His time at Alfa Romeo didn't have too many highlights for Raikkonen, especially compared to the heights he reached earlier in his career. Eventually, the Finn decided to call it a day at the end of the 2021 season.
Having gone through his entire F1 spell, in many ways we seem to have arrived at the answer to just how good Kimi Raikkonen was. Looking back at his career, we can safely say that there was a period when Raikkonen was the best driver on the grid. What we can also say, however, is that once he reached the pinnacle of the sport, it appears that he lost the eye of the tiger. He lost the focus, and with that, he lost the competitive nature that drove the greatest talents of his generation.
Kimi Raikkonen, when competitive and hungry, was the best driver on the grid. He might even have had the best peak that a driver can achieve in F1. The same Kimi Raikkonen, once he had won the title, however, lost that competitive edge. Even though he loved the sport and was arguably one of the most talented drivers on the grid, he just didn't have the fire burning inside him to put in those extra yards and fight for the title.
So, in the end, just how good was the Finn? A motivated, prime Kimi Raikkonen was one of the most feared drivers in F1 history. And if we are talking about how 'good' he was, he was one of the best the sport has ever seen.