Why Kimi Raikkonen is now a serious title threat

Thursday 02nd August 2012, 18:35 by Daniel Chalmers 

Lotus F1 Team, LAT Photographic

Kimi Raikkonen may have just missed out on Hungarian GP victory, but he has put himself right into contention for the main prize.

The Finn is now 48 points (less than 20 points under the old points system) behind championship leader Fernando Alonso. It’s definitely an assailable gap as previous title races have proved.

Recent history also shows that Lotus do have the capability to keep up in the development race. Kimi is now starting to hit the sweet spot after the first half of his comeback season. There are now also question marks hanging over a couple of Lotus’ title rivals.

Lotus proved in Hungary that the E20 is extremely formidable in race conditions and one of the very best cars when it comes to tyre management. Raikkonen’s incredible middle stint where he did the overcut on three of his rivals demonstrated that.

One of Lotus’ weaknesses has been poor pace over a single lap, certainly in the first third of the season. This has definitely prevented Lotus getting more big results, and possibly that elusive first win of 2012.

However there are signs that the team are now overcoming that problem. In Hungary they lined up second and fifth on the grid.

Qualifying in Silverstone and Hockenheim was inconclusive as they were both wet sessions. However in the last dry qualifying before Hungary in Valencia they lined up fourth and fifth on the grid. Like in Hungary they were then a huge factor in the race.

If they can keep that form up then they are going to be in contention in every race from here on in.

In Spa and Monza there is the likelihood that the team will debut their version of Mercedes’ Double DRS system (or super DRS, whichever you want to call it).

This could prove the key to ensuring Lotus are more consistently a factor in qualifying. The straight line speed the system may give them, could be significant at the next two races in Spa and Monza. Top speed is critical at both those circuits.

Some might argue that the system isn’t really helping Mercedes that much at the moment, so why will it suddenly be different for Lotus?

Apart from the first few races of the season the W03 hasn’t been a particularly strong car. Double DRS alone was never going to be enough to make them regular front runners.

Kimi Raikkonen tests Lotus's double-DRS set to be introduced in Belgium (© Octane Photographic).

However add the concept to what is already an extremely competitive car in the Lotus, and there is a chance that it could make a real difference. If it could gain just an extra few tenths, that could be all the team need to be fixed at the front of the field.

 It has also been said that their version will give even more benefit when the wing is closed, which could be even more significant

Ignoring double DRS Lotus have shown in the past that they are capable of developing a car throughout the whole season. Their championship seasons in 2005 and 2006 (where Mclaren and Ferrari caught with them in each season respectively) and last year’s ill conceived challenger may give the impression they lack development pace. However that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Back in 2010 they matched the development rate of the front runners all season long. Look back to 2008 and after a poor start to the season they fought back to win two races in the second half of the season (admittedly one of those  resulted in the crashgate scandal).

Stefano Domenicali admits that Lotus and Kimi are now a major factor in the title race: "I was not surprised by Kimi because I have always thought Kimi is a very good driver and a world champion - which you don't do unless you have something special."

He added: "I think that Lotus didn't collect the points that they were able to collect. They have had a good car since the beginning, so they could have more points.”

"They seem to be very gentle on the tyres too, and they will be a very good team in the second half of the season."

Raikkonen has now fully re-adapted to F1 and he is becoming happier with the car with each race.

After Friday practise in Hungary he said: “We've managed to improve the setup on my car over the last few races so I've been pretty happy with it. We're just making small improvements, but we're making them all the time and going in the right direction.”

So much has changed since he left the sport for rallying back in 2009. It’s been almost like being a rookie all over again.

He has had to get used to the refuelling ban and driving with very heavy fuel tanks. Plus there has been the challenge of adapting to Pirelli’s tyres, which his rivals have a year’s extra experience with.

Kimi Raikkonen has settled right back in after a two year absence (© Lotus F1 Team, LAT Photographic).

You also can’t underestimate the challenge of settling into a new team. One big issue for Kimi was the power steering which was detrimental to him at times in the first half of the season, but that situation has now improved.

Considering all of this Raikkonen’s consistency with five podiums and points in every race but one has been impressive.

With such an open championship this kind of consistency will ensure that he is in contention. Let’s remember that in 2003 he only won one race compared to Michael Schumacher’s six. However a string of second place finishes meant he only finished two points behind Schumacher in the final standings.

It's very feasible that with the experience of the first half of the season under his belt, he will be much stronger in the second half of the season.

Raikkonen won his 2007 title as a result of being much stronger in the second half of the season. He was also 26 points behind the championship leader at one point during that season. Currently he is less than two race wins behind Alonso.

Back in 2007 with only two competitive teams at the front it was harder to close down a gap that large. There weren’t many drivers able to take points away from his main rivals that season.

With six or seven teams potentially capable of finishing on the podium, if they have a good day there is a chance to take sizeable chunks out of Alonso’s championship lead.

Using last weekend’s GP as an example Kimi scored 8 points more than Alonso. That would have been 15 had the Finn been able to overtake Hamilton for the lead.

Red Bull and Ferrari may be the teams out front at the moment, but in Hungary we definitely saw cracks which will give massive hope to Raikkonen.

The slow and twisty nature of the Hungaroring should have suited the RB8 down to the ground. It’s the kind of track where Red Bull have been formidable in 2012. However Sebastian Vettel finished a distant fourth in both qualifying and the race whilst Mark Webber wasn't a factor all weekend.

Could their lack of performance have been down to the changes they were forced to make recently by the FIA?

Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean stand alongside Lewis Hamilton in Hungary (© Lotus F1 Team, LAT Photographic).

If that is the case that then it has definitely had an impact on the RB8’s performance, considering Hungary is a place you would put money on Red Bull winning. That doesn’t bode well for Spa and Monza, which are traditionally two of Red Bull’s weakest circuits.

Alonso has been doing an incredible job all year. However Hungary was possibly the first completely normal race weekend we have had for a while i.e. no rain in qualifying or safety cars in the race.

The safety car and high profile retirements aided his fight back from 11th on the grid in Valencia to victory. Wet qualifying in Silverstone and Hockenheim enabled him to use all his ability to grab pole at both those races.

In Hungary none of those factors featured and Alonso could only qualify sixth and finish fifth. The Hungaroring demonstrated that Ferrari are still not quite on the pace and very much beatable.

McLaren were right back on form. Despite the Woking squad’s statement of intent Lotus have the reassurance of knowing that in Hungary, they had the race pace to beat them. If only Hungary was a track where overtaking was possible. Spa and Monza on the other hand are.

Another factor that could go in Raikkonen’s favour is how he stays out of F1’s politics and games in the media. Very often in dramatic F1 title battles we see the main protagonists start to slag each other off via the media as the stakes get higher.

You can be sure that Kimi will stay out of all that and keep his head down. That certainly played a part in his 2007 title victory.

There is also the fact that Raikkonen is under absolutely no pressure to become champion in the first year of comeback. It’s not something anyone would realistically have expected coming into the season.

It’s also often easier to be the driver closing down the gap, rather than being the leader trying to maintain a gap to your rivals behind.

There is no doubt Kimi is in a very good place at the moment. He is now driving well, he is happy in the team, his car keeps on getting better and he is in a position where he isn’t under immense strain or pressure. Even better he has his favourite track to look forward to (Spa-Francorchamps) in the next round.

Raikkonen is certainly the outsider but there are plenty of reasons for him to be very positive. Even more so if he can just find a bit more time over a single lap.

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