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Kimi Räikkönen's WRC outing inspires other Formula One stars

All of a sudden, Formula One drivers in rallying are like taxi cabs: You wait for ages for one to turn up, and then they all arrive at once.

No sooner had 2007 F1 champion Kimi Räikkönen debuted in the World Rally Championship in Finland last weekend, than Red Bull Racing's Sebastian Vettel appeared in the service area. Now comes news that Robert Kubica is interested in the sport, too, following his BMW team's sudden withdrawal from F1. If BMW cannot find a buyer for its F1 operation--and if the driver does not land a seat at another team in 2010--Kubica may well have a bit more time on his hands to switch to rallying. Word is that Kubica has bought himself an ex-factory Skoda Fabia WRC car, which he takes into the woods to play with occasionally.

But back to the man who started the current craze: Kimi Matias Räikkönen. Rallying runs in his family: Räikkönen's older brother, Rami, was a moderately successful rally driver, winning his class on Rally Finland before deciding to give it all up for a life of domestic contentment in the Finnish countryside. Rami remembers a young Kimi always wanting to “borrow” his rally cars. And while Kimi hit the heights of open-wheel racing, the rallying bug never quite went away.

“Driving on a circuit, where you can learn all the corners, is one thing,” he once said. “Driving flat-out through a forest on gravel is quite different. That sounds really fun.”

Having decided to give it a go, Räikkönen really had only one choice of car: the Abarth Grande Punto Super 2000. Like his Ferrari F60, this attractive little rally car is a well-developed child of the Fiat Group.

“I spoke to [Fiat and Ferrari chairman] Luca di Montezemolo about it. He was fine with it as he knows rallying,” Räikkönen said. “Then choosing the car was actually quite easy.”

Finland was not Räikkönen's first time in a rally car. He had competed in two national events in Finland this year, plus one in Italy. But it was by far the biggest challenge he has faced with a roof over his head, especially since he is in the middle of the F1 season.

Great Britain in 1990 was the last time an active F1 driver took part in a WRC event, when Derek Warwick--at the time a Lotus F1 employee--took part in the RAC Rally in a Subaru Legacy, which he retired on day three of four, while lying 13th. In 1996, Martin Brundle competed on the RAC Rally for the first time while he was a Jordan Grand Prix driver, but at the time, the RAC did not qualify as a full WRC event because of the calendar-rotation system. And don't forget that Räikkönen is an F1 champion. Jim Clark's appearance in a Lotus Cortina in the 1966 RAC event is the only other time that an F1 titleholder contested a major rally. So don't underestimate the importance of Räikkönen's effort.

The man best-placed to observe it was his co-driver, Kaj Lindstrom, who worked previously alongside four-time WRC champion Tommi Makinen.

“Kimi did an amazing job, better even than I expected,” Lindstrom said. “He just has a natural feel for the car, which allowed him to set times right up there with people who have far more experience than him.”

In fact, Räikkönen was running in third-in-class for the majority of the event, climbing up to an astonishing 15th overall before he was caught out on Saturday evening. His Punto slid slightly wide on a corner and then hit a rock, rolling it over twice and ripping off a wheel. The damage was unfortunately too great for the “Iceman” to continue, but he will be back.

“Rallying is certainly something I want to do more of,” he said. “For me, it's simply a question of finding the time. But if I find the time, I'd like to do it again.”

He's not the only one. Vettel kept a close eye on his F1 colleague's progress from the service park in Jyvaskyla.

“It's nearly as quick as F1, but with gravel and no run-off,” said the wide-eyed young German, on a visit as a guest of Citroën. “I was able to get some advice from Sébastien Loeb, and there's no one better to give it. I still have plenty to do in Formula One, but who knows: maybe one day I might compete in the WRC. I wouldn't mind doing some drives in the future.”

Don't be surprised when it turns out that he is not the only one.

For more World Rally racing news and reports, click here.

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