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A new Finn performs his first tricks for the Formula One circus

Another nightmare for the motor racing commentators?




By Jarkko Jokelainen in Mugello

There was Keke Rosberg, whose name wasn't really Roz-Burg but Roos-Berry... then there was Jyrki Järvilehto, who took mercy and called himself J.J. Lehto, then there is Mika Häkkinen, who isn't Miker Hah-Keen-En, and the surprisingly accommodating Mika Salo, whose name shouldn't present problems to many, but now the Finns are threatening the world's TV commentators with a real killer - if the subject of this article makes it into Formula One, they will be begging for mercy...

"Hmmm... So why is it, then?"

Kimi Räikkönen (it's pronounced something like Ryke-Kon-en, by the way) stares at the read-out on the display unit in the pits at the Autodromo Internazionale del Mugello racetrack between Bologna and Florence, and he wonders aloud why his best lap-time - 1.26.418 - is more than a second slower than the fastest recorded today.

The timekeeper starts to explain the effects of different fuel quantities on the speed of an F1 car, the balance the Red Bull Sauber Petronas team have set up for the day, and the differing test purposes. But perhaps it also has something to do with the fact that that faster time was set by two-time World Drivers' Champion Michael Schumacher in his Ferrari and the slower one by a 20-year-old Finnish youth who has barely 100 laps in a Formula One car under his belt.

Räikkönen himself seems quite unmoved, even if the point of comparison is one of the undisputed giants of motor racing. His goals are right up there where the air is thin.
And the door to Grand Prix racing is already ajar. At the beginning of September, Räikkönen was offered a chance to test a Sauber F1 car. His lap-times so impressed the Swiss team that last week he was back again behind the wheel of a Sauber for three days. Räikkönen thanked them for the opportunity and went out and clocked the fastest time by a Sauber on the Mugello circuit this season.
I find myself asking how the devil this is possible. Kimi is a rather diminutive young man, and in his baseball cap and T-shirt he looks no different from any other 20-year-old. Just two years ago he was driving go-karts.

Kimi Räikkönen's first team was one formed with his brother. The two boys started in motocross, but then Kimi's father took them to watch a karting meet. "The next time we went back there with my own go-kart", says Räikkönen. He was then eight years old.
"I did motocross as a little kid, so it was through that that these other beasts started to look interesting. I had no driver idols or models to lean on - I was just driving for the fun of it. I guess it was simply the speed that fired me up."
Kimi began to gain some success here at home, and before very long he was also winning races abroad. In 1998 the time came to move to Holland, and last year he settled in Britain, after a test drive in a Formula Ford convinced onlookers he was a force to be reckoned with.

He promptly moved up a stage to take part in the 1999 Formula Renault Sport Championship. He finished third in his first outing, and won the winter season in a Manor Motorsport Renault with four wins from four races. This year he had the Formula Renault title wrapped up by the end of August, with two races still to be run.

The rules of this very competitive class ensure that every driver has identical equipment - and talent and racing ability are the keys to success. Räikkönen would appear to have these in spades; he won seven starts during the season, and was on the podium in his three other appearances. People were already talking in hushed tones about the boy's dazzling potential in the dry and in the wet.
Räikkönen himself was pleased at his success, but not over the moon: "It would just have been nice to win all of the races", he commented in his rather laconic but very telling fashion.
Kimi Räikkönen's career has been given an extra push by the managerial duo of Dave and Steve Robertson, who picked him up some years ago from behind the wheel of a go-kart. The Robertsons negotiated a contract to drive in Formula One this season for another 20-year-old, Britain's Jenson Button (Williams), and now their attention is being concentrated on Räikkönen, even if his name will be a mouthful for all but Finnish commentators.

The managers are unstinting in their praise for the youngster. The Robertsons have already named him as "a superstar of the future". Gerrit van Kowsen, who looked after Kimi during his stint at Mugello, is of the same opinion.

"I've worked with the Robertsons since the 1980s, and I have never, not ever, seen a driver who adjusts so quickly to a new breed of car. Normally you can expect a driver to take several days to come to terms with the differences from one formula to another, but Kimi was out there driving competitive lap-times in an F1 car after only a couple of circuits of the track."

If van Kowsen has any reservations at all about Räikkönen, they do not focus on his ability to drive a car so much as on his rather retiring personality, which is said to be not unlike that of Mika Häkkinen. Häkkinen has been obliged to learn how to deal with the spotlight and the press, but the label of "Ice Man" has still stuck with him, in part after journalists found him somewhat difficult to interview.

"Kimi's speed leaves nothing to be desired", assures Jacky Eeckerlaert, who ran the Sauber tests last week. "He's coming along very fast, but he's smart enough not to try to do it all at once. I like his calm approach. Of course he's short on experience, but I believe he has great potential."

The Finnish Defence Forces make sure they get their penny's worth, and next week Räikkönen will be back in barracks and uniform serving out an additional two weeks of his national service prior to emerging into civilian life. In other respects his future is an open book, but with many possible engagements pencilled in the margins.

The British Formula 3 stables are interested in acquiring the services of the promising young Finn, and talks have also been held with a couple of F1 teams. The idea that he might make the jump straight from Formula Renault to the big leagues is anything but likely, but he could find a place as a test-driver.

"Sure, it would be way cool to do something in F1. I mean, I guess I would not be driving if I didn't have aims to get to the very top", says Räikkönen. "But if it doesn't happen for me this time around, then I'll drive in the F3 series in Britain."

Räikkönen has also been given support by Mika Salo, who drives for Sauber until the end of this season, when he moves to the new Toyota F1 team.

"I've seen Salo, and he has briefed me on the practical side of things, and given me some hints on what to do and what not to do", reports Räikkönen. "He says I can always call him up if I have something to ask."
If Kimi Räikkönen's F1 dreams come true, it will mean a radical change in his life, and not just in the horse power and handling of the cars he drives. He's already had a foretaste of what might come: his mobile phone is hardly ever silent, and the Italian journalists who came to check out Schumacher's performance took a keen interest in the progress of the lad from Espoo.

"I suppose I shall just have to get used to it. The phone tends to ring a bit much. But then again, I kind of hope this is only the beginning. It would be nice to be able to retire in ten years from now to spend my winnings", Räikkönen says with a definite tongue in cheek grin. "But really the driving is more important to me than the money. Money would be a nice bonus; it certainly makes life easier."

Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 1.10.2000

[via HS]

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