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Wunderkind Räikkönen grows up to be a Formula One championship favourite

By Leena Lavonius in Melbourne

Oh my goodness. Was it really only three years ago that Kimi Räikkönen was preparing for the first Formula One Grand Prix of his career in Melbourne?

At the time, Räikkönen was something of a Wunderkind, having leaped straight from the Formula 3000 series to the top echelon of motor racing. As Räikkönen's F1 debut with the Sauber team approached, the meanest competitors sanctimoniously claimed that the young man would be a security hazard. In Melbourne, he performed some tricks with a mountain bike and looked like he was better suited for a bicycle than the cockpit of a Formula One vehicle.

Räikkönen gave the sceptics a taste of things to come at his very first Grand Prix: he brought his Sauber to the chequered flag in sixth place, scoring his first-ever world championship point.

This weekend Räikkönen has much more pressure on his shoulders. Now a victory is what is expected of him - not just in Melbourne on Sunday, but also in the drivers' world championship race after the season's 18 Grands Prix.
"Winning is my only goal. To win the world title and as many races as possible."
Both Formula One baron Bernie Ecclestone and two-time world champion Mika Häkkinen are prepared to place bets in favour of Räikkönen this year.
"We will see on Sunday. You are not able to say anything until the first race is over and you see how fast your car and the others' cars are. They cannot be compared except in a race."

Last year, Räikkönen lost the drivers' world championship to Michael Schumacher by a mere two points. The German had to work hard to earn eighth position in the season finale with his Ferrari, thus securing one valuable point.

Schumacher won six races last year. The only victory of Räikkönen's season and career came in Malaysia, the season's second venue. Räikkönen was on the podium in second place in seven of last season's Grand Prix.

Beating Schumacher alone may not even suffice this year. Räikkönen is the first challenger, but not the only one. McLaren team head Ron Dennis believes that the season will be very even between the top teams.
"Ferrari, McLaren, Williams, and Renault are fighting hard, harder than for years. And you cannot forget surprises. BAR will surely be a bigger player than last season", Dennis said.
Formula One chiefs are in the habit of touting how much they believe in the victory of their own drivers. Ron Dennis is not like this. "I am never sure about anything before the season's first race."

On the track, Räikkönen drove like an experienced master already in his first season, but when in the public eye, he was still a boy, shy and quiet.

"No", "Yeah", and "I don't know" were the most common answers. In three years, his comments have become more voluble and polite, but it is no use to expect any exuberance from Räikkönen anywhere else than behind the wheel.
"
We will do everything we can so that this year the difference in world championship points would be to our advantage", Räikkönen chose his words on Thursday. He prefers to speak in plural terms, for the whole McLaren team.

One time after the next, he patiently repeated to the reporters how he is confident in the new McLaren car, how it is too early to tell what the coming season will turn out to be like, and how tough the competition is between the top teams. At the beginning of the session, Räikkönen even managed a few smiles.

In previous years in Melbourne, lady luck has definitely smiled upon Räikkönen.
In his earlier outings at Albert Park, Räikkönen has once finished sixth, and twice third. Last year, a sure-looking victory slipped to team-mate David Coulthard due to a speeding penalty.
"It is great to start off the new season here again. Of course it would be perfect to start the season with a win, but the most important thing is to reach the finish line and score some points", Räikkönen stated on Thursday.

A moment later, he said the same thing to a German television station. And then to another TV-station. The smile was gone, and Räikkönen's thoughts were obviously elsewhere, probably with Sunday's race.

Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 5.3.2004

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