3. Kimi Raikkonen, Lotus (Finland): 2012 Season – Wins 1; Podiums 7; Points 207
Season 2013 (2 races): Wins 1; Podiums 0; Points 31
When Kimi Raikkonen announced his return to the Formula 1 fold in 2012 after a three-year hiatus, there was a sense of euphoria among thousands of his loyal fans. And yet, there were some apprehensions as well. The question on most peoples’ lips was whether he would be the same force that he was when he walked away from it all after bagging one WDC title with Ferrari in 2007 and two runners-up finishes in 2003 and 2005 with McLaren respectively. Would he be competitive enough after such a long sabbatical especially considering that he was mainly rally driving for the Citroen Junior Racing Team, dabbling in a bit of NASCAR in the U.S. before ending up racing trucks in the Camping World Truck series!
But as the cliché goes, you can take a man out of racing, but you can’t take racing out of him! Raikkonen’s comeback was made possible before the 2012 Season when Lotus-Renault (the re-branded race management of Team Renault), got him back into the fold. The man himself probably missed the adrenaline rush of being in the fastest cars in the world and so might have even settled for a lesser pay packet to get back into the F1 Grand Prix Circus (although he would be loath to admit it). You can check out the Iceman’s second coming by Lotus F1 at http://www.kimiraikkonen.com. It is truly a must for all Kimi die-hard fans!
And boy! What a phenomenal return it has been! Even after three years away from the mainstream, Raikkonen simply waded back into the frenetic, high-octane world of Formula 1 and glided his way to one win and seven podium finishes and a staggering 207 points to end the season on P3. The feat is categorised as “staggering” only because the car at Raikkonen’s disposal – the Lotus E20 – was way behind in race pace in comparison to the Red Bulls, McLarens and even the Mercedes’. And yet, he managed to beat two former world champions, Lewis Hamilton and Jensen Button, quite comfortably.
The season’s crowning glory came in Abu Dhabi when he held off a marauding Fernando Alonso to win his first race in 2012. It is a testimony to Raikkonen’s sheer driving ability, acute spatial awareness and incredible race control that he managed to score points in that car in each race of the season bar one – at Shanghai, China where he finished at P14. Every other race was within the top 10 and there were 19 of them in all!
What was even more creditable was that he was the only driver to complete all 20 races without a single accident or mechanical failures. It is another matter though that his car had begun to sound like a hollow, damaged drum by the time he hit the brand new circuit in Austin, Texas. Raikkonen had literally worked his car and all the available engines for the season, into the ground! Contrast this performance of his younger team-mate Romain Grosjean’s results for the season wherein he had all of seven retirements through crashes and mechanical glitches!
So what does Kimi Raikkonen need to do this season in order to win the World Drivers Championship? Well, he has started terrifically by winning the Australian Grand Prix and then managing to somehow stay in the points (7th position for 6 points) in the Sepang Grand Prix, his qualifying penalty of three grid positions notwithstanding. A total of 31 points means that he is just 9 points adrift of Sebastian Vettel and already second in the driver’s points table. With the first win out-of-the-way, Raikkonen needs at least a couple more P1 finishes to throw in the gauntlet at Vettel and Alonso. And it is possible this season.
The Lotus-Renault E21 is showing fantastic pace in the dry, even faster than the Red Bulls or the Ferraris. Second, even as the likes of Vettel, Webber and most of the drivers are going to town criticising the rapid degradation of the new Pirelli tyres, Raikkonen has shown the way in their careful preservation and management. On the James Allen on F1 website (the Bible for us F1 fans), Lotus’ Technical Director, James Allison said that unlike what people believe about Raikkonen being a very fast driver; it is his patience over tens of laps that characterise his current version as an F1 racer.
To amplify the point, he revealed that when Kimi was behind the two race leaders at Sepang, he deliberately maintained a one second distance behind them, so that he had the benefit of clean air around him, which in turn, prevented his car’s tyres from overheating.
Allison has said in a podcast that Kimi lost traction on the wheels only twice during the entire race at Melbourne. And that even in the final laps (where he set the fastest lap time of the race), his tyres were only half worn! So much so for tyre degradation!
Given dry conditions, Raikkonen is going to dominate in the season that is unfolding even if the car he has does not have great pace in qualifying. Lotus is expecting a lot more updates in the days and months to come, so that would be one area that they will address specifically. But qualifying pace or not, it takes Raikkonen to spot one gap in the field at the start and he has the talent to simply blow his way into a top three slot. From there on, he is normally unbeatable only because the level of control he exercises is masterful.
Raikkonen in his second coming is a lot cannier and a more measured. As a bottom line, all this is great news for true-blue racing fans because we can expect to be treated to some masterful driving on the most grueling and competitive race tracks in the world.
4. Lewis Hamilton, McLaren-Mercedes (Great Britain): 2012 Season – Wins 4; Podiums 7; Points 190
Season 2013 (2 races): Wins 0; Podiums 1; Points 25
On his day, there is no better sight than Lewis Hamilton blazing his way like a silver arrow at the front of the grid. Such is his pace and control that he is capable of opening up significant leads in a matter of mere seconds. It is often said that the 27-year-old Englishman knows only one gear to drive in – overdrive! He possesses incredible control but his blazing, blasting style of driving can end in heartbreak and that too in a few crucial races when points in the bag matter the most.
Easily one of the fastest drivers in the world, Hamilton has also been plagued with a mixture of bad luck and myriad mechanical problems with his McLaren MP4-27. Season 2012 could have seen Hamilton challenging the eventual winner and leaders and even dominating the standings had it not been for five crippling retirements.
In Germany, (Hamilton’s 100th Grand Prix start) he had a punctured tyre in Lap 3; in Belgium Romain Grosjean made contact forcing him to plough into Fernando Alonso and Sergio Perez thereby ending the race for all four drivers; his gearbox failed at Singapore, followed by another mechanical failure at Abu Dhabi when he was comfortably in the lead, and finally in Sao Paulo, Nico Hulkenberg made contact with Hamilton forcing the two-time world champion to retire from P2 in his very last race for Team McLaren!
The sum total of all the mishaps suffered by Hamilton meant that he lost at the very least between 50 and 75 points which had a significant impact on the final standings in Season 2012. Had Hamilton completed all races like say Kimi Raikkonen, he would have finished third overall and could have even challenged Alonso for second. Even then his stats for the season were extremely impressive with over 75% of his total points (190) coming from wins and podiums! In a car that gave both McLaren drivers a lot of grief during the year, those are remarkable figures.
As the season drove to a close, controversy erupted when Hamilton was said to be unhappy at McLaren owing to contractual differences with the team principals (McLaren apparently refused to hike his salary for the 2013 Season), Hamilton finally joined Mercedes even after he was rumoured to have approached Bernie Ecclestone for getting him a seat at Red Bull Racing. This was subsequently vehemently denied by Hamilton but true to form, he was yet again at the centre of an unnecessary controversy.
Analysts wondered whether all this would have an impact on his performance in the season. If the first two races of the season have been any indication, Hamilton is back to doing what he does best – making the most of a machine that cannot as yet be categorised as really quick. He finished 5th at Melbourne and 3rd at Sepang netting him a total of 25 points so far (adrift by 15 points from the leader Sebastian Vettel). But there are encouraging signs that Mercedes will be a serious top 3 contender in 2013 with both Hamilton and Rosberg showing excellent form. The two have pushed Mercedes within 3 points of the second place held jointly by Lotus and Ferrari in the Constructors Standings.
A lot of Hamilton’s assault on Vettel’s stranglehold atop the F1 food chain will depend on his ability to curb his naturally aggressive instincts. Much like Alonso and Raikkonen, he will have to nurse, cajole and coax his car into providing the best possible performance within its limitations and chalking up points consistently over 20 races. He has started well and that is half the job done because the worst fate that can befall a race driver is to have mechanical problems or accidents early in the season. It tends to play with their psyche in a negative way and adds way too much pressure when the time comes to playing catch-up.
If you race fans have noticed, this season Hamilton seems to be taking it a whole lot slower and easier. He seems calmer and has been pacing his sessions a lot more sensibly. Gone is that instinct that pathologically drives him to blitz the time-sheets, be it in the practice sessions, qualifying or then in the race. Instead, he is now driving well within himself and selecting his moment to unleash the beast for a few flying laps when it matters, say in qualifying. He was also raring to have a go at Vettel and Webber towards the end of the race at Sepang but a curt instruction from Ross Brawn from the Mercedes telemetry station and his own new-found sense of maturity, saw him conserve fuel and his tyres and safely bring home the car in third place.
Hamilton’s machine may not possess the heavy artillery required to destroy the Red Bulls’ charge at the top of the grid. But there is no way that he can be written off as a title contender especially considering the driver problems being faced at the Austrian team garage and the terribly designed, uncompetitive car of his former team, McLaren. If he manages to keep his head as he did at Malaysia, Hamilton could well be one of the top three drivers vying for the title in 2013.