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Can the Ice Man adjust to the changes in Formula One?

2012 marks the return of the 2007 World Drivers Champion, Kimi Raikkonen to Formula One. After a championship winning Ferrari debut, the Finn went through a famous “drop in motivation” and subsequent decline in fortunes in the 2008-2009 seasons, leading to a premature exit from F1 and a tumultuous stint in rallying. There were rumours of a return late last season, and the winter break just confirmed his return. Kimi Raikkonen will be back behind the wheel of an F1 car, driving the Renault powered Lotus this season.

Robert Kubica’s loss was Vitaly Petrov’s gain last year with the No. 1 driver status within the Lotus-Renault team. With Kubica still out, and Petrov unable to retain his seat despite of a few solid performances, the Lotus team would be hoping for some magic from the returning Raikkonen to boost their position in the midfield this season. From Raikkonen’s point of view, this brings an interesting challenge.  He hasn’t faced in F1 till date: that of leading a midfield running team, and carrying to the front of the starting grid.

Many things have changed since Raikkonen last raced in F1. Movable front wings have come and gone. Blown diffusers and front exhausts have been tried and discarded.  The “Overtake button” [read DRS] has added some spice to the pan, and most importantly F1 has moved to the evolving Pirelli tyres. For Raikkonen, it is a race against time to learn the new car, absorb how the new tyres react to his style of driving, adjust to the extra boost of the KERS, combined with the dash of DRS. For someone who is known to relish leading the race and overtaking the cars, it will be interesting to see whether he has the patience to sit back when someone passes him in a DRS zone, and bide his time to return the favour in the next lap. He might just do that, given the new driving etiquettes that prohibit a driver from reclaiming the racing line once he has moved away to defend his position.

But more interestingly, there are a few more World Champions on the grid since he last raced. The 2009 grid had Raikkonen, Alonso, Hamilton and the eventual champion Jenson Button. This season, the starting grid will see the most number of World Champions rearing to go as the Red lights go out in Albert Park. A staggering no.of six drivers, racing this year are previous world Champions, with Raikkonen and Schumacher’s return. That itself would be a record-setting start to the season. If Schumacher has a season remotely similar to 2011, we might even see a Raikkonen-Schumacher moment somewhere down the line.

Realistically speaking, Kimi Raikkonen’s chances of a Grand Prix podium look slim this year, with the Red Bulls looking to pick up where they left off last year, McLaren looking good [and theirs is the only car that can boast of looking good this season] for a close title run, Mercedes hoping to finally win their first Grand Prix and Ferrari toiling hard for a change of fortunes [although practice times haven't been that encouraging] it would take a miracle for the flying Finn to get the Black-and-Gold Lotus anywhere near the points. His main challenge this year wouldn’t even be the Force India cars or the Torro Rossos, His first target would be getting to the edge of Q3. Everything in excess is a bonus. He has a not-really-a-rookie teammate in Romain Grosjean, whom he would be expected to outrace hands down in spite of the rust, and the clarity in the intra-team dynamics should suit him.

For his fans, though, none of it would matter. Just watching the Iceman back where he belongs, racing against old rivals and new would be a treat worth the hype.

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