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Why is Raikkonen so popular?image

Kimi Raikkonen is a superb grand prix driver and a very worthy member of the 32-man club of world champions.

In fact, he probably should have at least one more crown to his name from the McLaren era. He is also arguably the most popular driver on the grid.

But there are some puzzling contradictions in Raikkonen's unique and beloved brand of anti-charisma. He is not an infinitely-quotable soundbite machine, nor is he a champion of fan interactivity as one of the few remaining Twitter hold-outs in F1. But what he does offer is the impression of authenticity.

Many, perhaps most, do not have an affinity for monotonous excellence. Today, another Sebastian Vettel victory is often greeted with a yawn and a dismissive wave of the hand.

Yet the German is a remarkable driver, who combines speed with a commendable work ethic and an affable character that has been subsumed by an absurd caricature of him as some kind of evil genius.

Raikkonen is very different. While Vettel leaves no stone unturned and is well-liked in his team for his attention to detail - every detail - Raikkonen is more selective in his efforts. Wrongly regarded as laziness by some, it's more a question of the uncluttered and focused approach that he needs to get the best out of himself.

He's the same in interviews with the media. Personally, I have always found Raikkonen to be perfectly willing and able to offer detailed answers to questions. But ask leading questions, or repeat the same ones, and he perfectly legitimately gives you short-shrift. Then again, there are also days when he does live up to his trademark for being monosyllabic (in Brazil last year, he answered his phone during a media briefing... there was no one on the other end).

But Raikkonen's persona means he gets away with things. Take the famously blunt radio messages in Abu Dhabi last year. As Lotus trackside operations director Alan Permane explains here, under the safety car Raikkonen's tyre temperatures had dropped. Had, say, Paul di Resta offered that response, he would have been condemned as rude rather than praised for being straight talking.But that is the advantage of having a persona like Raikkonen's. Everything you do is seen through the prism of his personality.

I once asked Raikkonen about his popularity with the fans. He gave a typical answer."I don't know, you'll have to ask them," he said. "I'd rather do my thing as best I can and then it sometimes works and sometimes not. As long as I'm happy, that's the main thing for me - I don't try to please other people."There is no point in doing things to try and please everybody else and not be happy yourself. If people like it, good, but there are a lot of people who don't like it and that is fair enough."I'm not here to please people, I'm here to do my own thing and be happy and hopefully get some good results. That's the most important thing."

Superficially, it's not an especially illuminating response. But it can be summed up simply. Raikkonen is a driver who both does what he wants and gives the impression that he does what he wants. If he wants to get involved with gorilla-suited speedboat antics, he will do so. He is, in short, fun.

Raikkonen is often said to be a man out of his time. A 1970s throwback to the days of James Hunt, a man whose helmet colours he carried at last year's Monaco Grand Prix and whose name has been used as a pseudonym by the Finn.

Yet send him back in time 40 years as is and he would likely be regarded as one of the more boring drivers (although, clearly, he would be able to be more open about his philosophy of life and therefore a different proposition).

The bottom line is that the most engaging aspect of Raikkonen for many people is the sense of mystery. The great contradiction about Raikkonen is that he is seen as his own man yet has as powerful a PR shield as any driver. Speak to those who know and work closely with him and they will tell you about a charismatic, garrulous individual.But the fact is that the man and myth are very different propositions. Raikkonen's popularity is rooted in his enigma. You can transpose your own expectations to create a 'Real Raikkonen' in your mind who is likely every bit as fictional as the one seen in public.

At the root of it is the trend to rail against modern sport. Personally, I've always enjoyed seeing the sporting bar raised. The pursuit of incremental gains by finely-honed athletes and teams in the sports science era is fascinating. The pursuit of incremental gains to find those extra fractions of a per cent that can make you unbeatable leaves many cold.

Raikkonen is the anti-science driver. He keeps it simple, old-school. It's the way many people would like to live their lives. To Lotus's credit, it has worked very hard to give Raikkonen the environment and schedule that suits him.

It has even made a virtue of his public persona. Just look at the recent Renault Megane advert, in which Raikkonen utters a grand total of seven words, four of them 'no'.What can Formula 1 learn from him? The most important thing to realise is that sport, no matter how seriously you take it, is to a certain extent theatre. F1 has to retain its popularity to maintain its incredible standards of cutting edge technology. With the drivers now quite rightly shrouded in protective cocoons and even helmet liveries no longer as distinctive as they once were, grand prix racing can come across as very cold.

Raikkonen is the exception. Ironically for a someone known as 'Iceman' he offers the promise of a warm heart at the centre of a technological sport. That's what makes him so popular.The extent to which drivers are corralled into saying little by PRs is overstated. There are precious few times when any PR personnel have interjected or tried to stop questions being asked (usually only related to legal issues). Usually, nothing is off limits. But the drivers self-regulate, wary about saying the wrong thing. Universally, they have far stronger opinions and more interesting things to say when you speak to them in private.

Raikkonen has tackled this by saying nothing, but in a way that leaves the fans to draw their own conclusions from the odd glimpses of him in a more relaxed frame of mind. He is, in short, human.He is popular because he is the exception. That, and he is a superb driver who is as good as anyone in a race situation even though, by his own admission, he does not always extract the absolute maximum, that last tenth or two, in qualifying. That is not a major criticism, for you could say a similar thing about Fernando Alonso, who is very quick on Saturday but his real strengths shine through in race situations.

His non-political approach is also well-regarded. Unfortunately, playing politics can work both ways. It's not only about a ruthless pursuit of primacy in a team, but also a defence mechanism to ensure your own position is not compromised. Perhaps a 10 per cent more politically active Raikkonen would be an even more successful one?

Raikkonen has been a valuable addition to the sport since he returned. There was justifiable scepticism when he chose to came back, particularly with a Lotus team that had struggled during the previous season. But his class has shone through and he is a worthy addition to F1's top table.

So what if he is not entirely compatible with the pursuit of incremental gains that makes the likes of Vettel so successful? He is still one of the classiest drivers on the grid and a privilege to watch.He is what he is. That is what allows him to be, to everyone else, exactly what they want him to be.

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