What made Kimi Raikkonen sign for Sauber?
Rather than stepping aside at the top, Kimi Raikkonen made the surprise decision to re-join Sauber after 17 years away - the question everyone is now asking is why?
Ferrari sealed the Iceman’s fate last week by announcing that 20-year-old rookie Charles Leclerc will replace him for 2019. Raikkonen later took to Instagram to announce his shock return to Sauber, the team where he made his F1 debut back in 2001, on a two-year deal.
As someone whose uninterested by the conventions that come from being an F1 driver, such as media and PR events, signing for a team that cannot offer him a competitive package at the front end of the grid was an unlikely prospect.
Speaking for the first time since the big announcement on Thursday, Raikkonen remained his usual cool and non-chatty self in front of the press and gave little away.
However, the 38-year-old Finn disclosed that the decision to leave Ferrari wasn’t his and talks with Sauber had only begun after the Italian Grand Prix over a fortnight ago.
So what made Raikkonen sign for Sauber?
It was the former owner Peter Sauber who gave a young Raikkonen his first chance in F1 with Sauber, despite having just 23 open-wheel races to his name.
But the then-unknown Finn proved doubters wrong by delivering four points-scoring finishes to help Sauber secure what was then its best result of fourth place in the Constructors’ Championship, alongside teammate Nick Heidfeld.
McLaren came calling afterwards for Raikkonen to replace fellow Finn and two-time world champion Mika Hakkinen on a five-year contract.
But, 17 years later, it turns out that Raikkonen has remained a keen admirer and sought talks with Sauber over a 2019 race seat after learning Ferrari would not keep him.
The Swiss-based team were bottom of the 2017 constructors’ championship with five points. But Frederic Vasseur’s arrival as team principal has improved their fortunes.
Vasseur is highly rated within motorsport and worked alongside future F1 world champions Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton in their GP2 championship wins in 2005 and 2006 respectively.
After replacing Monisha Kaltenborn last year, Vasseur secured Sauber a multi-year technical and commercial partnership with Alfa Romeo along with a 2018-specification Ferrari power unit.
They have recruited former Ferrari men Simone Resta and Jan Monchaux to head the team’s technical and aerodynamic departments.
19 points and a solid sixth-place finish from Leclerc in Azerbaijan has justified Sauber’s progress from last year and things are expected to improve next season.
This could give Raikkonen the chance to lead Sauber into an exciting new era, whilst racing on his own terms and having to attend fewer PR events.
Despite the public’s perception of him and his advancing years, Raikkonen remains a keen racer and feels he still has what it takes to compete at the pinnacle of motorsport for a while longer.
The move may not have been what the many Raikkonen fans had hoped, but at least his unorthodox presence will live on in F1.
So what else can Raikkonen achieve in F1?
Raikkonen is the most successful Finnish F1 driver of all-time in terms of points, podium finishes and fastest laps. The Iceman is also the third Finnish driver to win an F1 title after Keke Rosberg and Mika Hakkinen, with whom he shares the most wins record.
Even though he’s 38 years old now, Raikkonen set the fastest ever lap recorded in F1 history at the recent Italian Grand Prix qualifying session with a time of 1m 19.119 and an average speed of 263.588 kilometres per hour.
While Sauber has improved significantly over the past 12 months, Raikkonen will probably only be scrapping for points next season instead of challenging at the top end of the grid.
But, should he see out the next two years at Sauber, then Raikkonen will break Rubens Barrichello’s all-time GP starts record of 326 entries.