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Kimi Raikkonen and Charles Leclerk - more than just humble F1 beginnings?

2018-07-28 19:00

Charlen Raymond

Image: Wheels24

Ferrari is in the strongest form it’s been in for the last decade and the Reds are embroiled in a tight battle with Mercedes-AMG for the 2018 Formula 1 world championships.

While Ferrari man, Sebastian Vettel, is doing his utmost to turn the tables on Mercedes’ dominance of the past four years, his team mate, Kimi Raikkonen, is playing second fiddle and catch-up to a driver that’s built an entire team around him.

Race strategies are set up in such a way that Vettel benefits and if Raikkonen is ahead of the his team mate, something needs to happen for the two to swap positions.

Vettel is the man that Ferrari’s placed its hopes on to win another championship, but the man to have last won a championship for Ferrari is barely getting any recognition.

2007 champion

Eleven years ago, Raikkonen, during his first stint with the fabled Italian team, won the driver’s championship, but it was also the last time a Ferrari driver has been able to do so. Before Raikkonen, it was Michael Schumacher who dominated the sport between 2000 and 2004, winning five championships on the trot, making it seven in total for his career. When Schumacher retired at the end of 2006, following two title defeats to Fernando Alonso in the unstoppable Renault in 2005 and 2006, it was Raikkonen who got the nod to replace him.

Raikkonen, coming off very strong seasons with McLaren-Mercedes and clearly having made an impression on the Italians, donned the Ferrari overalls and got the better of Alonso and then-rookie, Lewis Hamilton - both men having driven for McLaren-Mercedes - in 2007. That year he won the championship by a solitary point over his two title rivals and the signs were there that more titles would be on the cards. But Raikkonen’s form dipped and so too did Ferrari’s interest in him.

READ: Raikkonen not denying Ferrari-Leclerc rumours

By the end of 2009, he was replaced by Alonso for the 2010 season onwards and he opted to pursue other racing interests outside of F1. He returned in 2012 to race for Lotus-Renault and in 2014 he returned to Ferrari - the team he won his first, and only, F1 championship with. At the end of 2014 his team mate, Felipe Massa, left the team to race for Williams, and Vettel was drafted in from Red Bull Racing to partner Raikkonen from 2015 onwards.


Close calls

It was back in 2001 that a very young Raikkonen made his debut at the Australian GP with Sauber. That year he set the world of F1 alight and by season’s end, McLaren-Mercedes had acquired his services. It’s almost unheard of for a rookie, after his very first season in F1, to race for a championship winning team after only one season. But that’s what Raikkonen’s managed to do in 2001. He was seen as the man to take over the reigns from Mika Hakkinen and to stop the dominance that Schumacher was wreaking on the sport.

Raikkonen was seen as the man to bring championships back to McLaren-Mercedes following Hakkinen’s successes in 1998 and 1999. Raikkonen took the 2002 season to familiarise himself with the team and in 2003 he challenged Schumacher for top honours. It was an intense battle and Raikkonen came achingly close to toppling the legendary driver, but poor reliability on his car’s part left him and the team without a title. In 2005, against Alonso, Raikkonen fought brilliantly to win the big one, but again reliability played a big part.

There was nothing wrong with Raikkonen’s speed and the raw talent he displayed was better than what most could handle. But he made an impression and he got the job done - even if there was no championship to show for it.

The Sauber effect

It took only one season, in 2001 with Sauber, for the F1 world to take note of Raikkonen, and 17 years on that season is repeating itself. Rookie driver, Charles Leclerk, is racing for Sauber and has been setting the racing world alight with his speed. In qualifying, he managed to make it into Q3 on more than one occasion in a car that, at best, should not have made it into Q2. He is a regular points finisher in the 2018 season this year and is now tipped to race for Ferrari in 2019 and 2020. Sound familiar?

READ: Leclerc ready to jump at Ferrari seat

Raikkonen had the world of F1 at his feet in 2001 and it took only one of the bigger teams to acquire his services. Ferrari, not known to sign young drivers, might be looking to replace Raikkonen with the young sensation in a move that will go against their philosophy of signing senior, more experienced, drivers. Leclerk may come from the Ferrari Academy and a future seat at the Scuderia could very well be his destiny, but he has shown promise for a driver in his first season. Should Ferrari opt to replace Raikkonen with Leclerk at the end of this year, it would a passing-of-the-torch moment of sorts. Raikkonen, the man who impressed so much in his rookie season, is making way for a driver almost half his age who has also impressed in his rookie season.

And to think: both men started their careers at an under-performing Sauber team, driving and excelling in a car that is nowhere near the required performance to make any impression on the field.

When you think about it, it has actually come full circle.

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