“You must learn some of my philosophy. Think only of the past as its remembrance gives you pleasure.”
~Jane Austen – Pride and Prejudice~
It has not been a pleasurable year for supporters of Kimi Raikkonen. Indeed, 2014 has been a season to forget for a lot of fans. No wins for Alonso or Ferrari. Lotus struggling for a mere handful of points after fighting for wins last year. Sauber procuring no points at all for the first time in their 22 year sojourn in Formula One. I have at least been fortunate in that being an Australian I have had the thrill of watching young Daniel push the Mercedes pair off the top spot of the podium an astonishing three times.
In an attempt to recall the magic of Kimi Raikkonen’s dazzling driving I invited Kobie, my junior Formula One apprentice and fellow Kimi devotee, to come to dinner and watch the 2005 Japanese Grand Prix. She has joined us for most of this season’s races, even managing to rise at 3 am for the Brazilian Grand Prix – though she found it easier to wake up than stay awake! She has only been following Formula One for a couple of years and had never watched an historic race before.
Nine years may not seem like that long ago but in terms of Formula One the changes were astronomical. There were curious looking grooved tyres, smooth and sleek front and rear wings, and pitting for fuel without the need to change tyres. She saw Christijan Albers’ Minardi catch fire when a fuel stop went wrong and other pit stops when everyone just stood around waiting impatiently for the fuel to go in. Strategy was not just due to tyre wear, but complex calculations based on timing the length of pit stops to help the commentators determine if cars were running heavy or light fuel loads.
Alonso had wrapped up the Driver’s Championship the week before in Brazil, but the Constructor’s Championship was still up for grabs with McLaren a scant two points ahead of Renault. It was Jenson Button’s 99th race and the British commentators were salivating over the possibility that he had a chance for his inaugural win. Ralf Schumacher was on pole for Toyota but could he get Toyota their first win after four years and the investment of multiple millions of dollars? He and Jarno Trulli had come close during the season with several podium positions, but had never quite managed to snatch the top spot.
The grid order was juggled with the onset of showers part way through qualifying and Kimi Raikkonen had the added misfortune of yet another engine failure with a subsequent 10 place grid penalty, his fourth for the season. He was in 17th, wedged between Fernando Alonso (Renault) and Juan Pablo Montoya (McLaren) who had both been forced to do their single qualifying lap in the rain. With passing at Suzuka difficult, if not impossible, could any of them hope to finish higher than midfield?
Prior to the race start Martin Brundle predicted that the winner would most likely be Giancarlo Fisichella who was driving the second Renault though Ralf Schumacher and Button (BAR-Honda) were also strong prospects. Brundle talked to a relaxed and chatty Button on pit lane, the hope of a first victory visible in his eyes. Honda had given him a “Suzuka-special” engine for this race and his numerous local fans were cheering him on.
Ralf Schumacher took the lead off the line and quickly pulled out time on Fisichella, who despite being third on the grid managed to get ahead of the sluggish starting Button. It was only after Ralf’s very early first pit stop that it became obvious his speed advantage was due to the fact that his car had been running on fumes as with a full fuel tank he never managed to regain his initial pace.
The changing point of the race occurred at the chicane at the end of the first lap when McLaren driver Juan Pablo Montoya tried to squeeze past on the outside of Jacques Villeneuve in his Sauber. Unsurprisingly neither driver was keen to give way to the other. The inevitable happened when they collided and Montoya speared into the wall, his car disintegrating around him. The stewards agreed with Juan Pablo that Jacques should have given him more room and Villeneuve was given a 25 second penalty at the end of the race.
This accident bought out the safety car which helped to bunch up the field which considerably benefited Alonso and Raikkonen who were working their way up from the back of the grid. Alonso’s start had been spectacular, leaping eight places in the first lap, but Kimi had had an early off track excursion and was languishing back in 12th. The safety car did negate the early lead that the front runners had pulled out on those behind, allowing those at the rear to catch up significant lost time in a relatively painless manner.
Michael Schumacher was driving that season like a seven times world champion, dragging his truck of a Ferrari into positions it probably didn’t deserve to be. This race was no exception, though as Kimi and Fernando were both behind him they both had the challenge of trying to pass him. For a time all three cars seemed stuck together like glue, with Michael skilfully making his car wider than any other car on the track. Alonso eventually did a spectacular pass when Michael moved to block the inside line at 130R. Alonso kept his foot flat on the accelerator and went round the outside of him at 208 miles/hr.
Kimi remained stuck behind, his car hitting the rev limiter and restricting his top speed in 7th gear. When Michael eventually pitted, Kimi came in right behind him, but failed to overtake him with a quicker pit-stop. Fernando had pitted several laps before and must have been very peeved that both Michael and Kimi came out of their pit stop ahead of him again. How many times would he have to get past Schumacher? Surely once was enough! This time it was Raikkonen who managed to pass quickly. Alonso remained stuck behind Schumacher for a number of laps before another brilliant passing manoeuvre, this time going into the first corner at the end of the main straight, saw him once again have the long awaited open air in front of him.
After passing Schumacher, Kimi started to whittle away at the 17 second gap between him and race leader Fisichella. His speed advantage didn’t last long as he soon came up behind Mark Webber (Williams) and Button. Unable to get past, he was forced to bide his time until they eventually pitted. Despite this he didn’t lose any significant time to Fernando Alonso who, despite pitting earlier and having no one in front to slow him down, was matching speed with Raikkonen due to his heavier fuel load. It wasn’t until Webber and Button pitted with 12 laps to go that Kimi could finally put the benefit of his light fuel load to good use. He was now in the lead but he still had to make his second pit stop. He had a five second margin over Fisichella but James Allen predicted that being balked behind Webber and Button had demolished any chance Kimi had of race victory.
With 11 laps to go Kimi’s pace was phenomenal, and Fisichella appeared unable to match him. The time difference between them evaporated with every succeeding lap and by the time Kimi pitted for a splash and dash with eight laps to go he was able to re-join the race ahead of Webber who was in third. He was a mere five seconds behind Fisichella and it was evident that unless Fisichella had undisclosed speed that he had not yet demonstrated that he would shortly have a win hunting Raikkonen sitting on his heels.
Within a few laps Raikkonen had cut the time between them to milliseconds and Fisichella was nervously defending fresh air in an endeavour to keep Kimi behind him. Going down the main straight Kimi moved left to try and go around the outside, but Fisichella had just enough speed to hold him off. For the whole next lap Fisichella guarded his lead at every possible (and sometimes impossible) passing opportunity.
Coming into the chicane for the penultimate time Raikkonen was all over the rear of Fisichella’s car, showing his obviously superior grip, balance and, most importantly, confidence. Fisichella defended going through the chicane, but Kimi held to the racing line which gave him a significant speed advantage. The two cars passed the pits side by side, nearly touching wheels. As they approached turn one, Fisichella, due to the tighter inside line, had to brake first. Kimi nipped past on the outside for the lead, which culminated in the 10th win of his career and probably his most outstanding drive.
Kimi commented after the race that “Of course, it was much more difficult than any other of my wins but in one way it is much nicer when you have to fight for it. So it is one of the best ones. It was great, you know, with all the problems in practice with the engine, then the ten-place penalty and all the problems in qualifying with the weather. We were still able to win and now we have a perfect place for qualifying in the last race.”
An emotional Ron Dennis said, “I think it’s the best race of his career…very proud for the team…a bit of emotion (said with a wry smile, struggling to talk with tears streaming down his face). When you qualify so badly and the circumstances are as they were you really have to dig deep to find the best solution every single lap. Our strategist just did a fantastic job. These things unfold and nothing should ever take anything away from Kimi but it was a tremendous team victory. I think it was his best race ever and puts us back in contention for the constructors. It was just a phenomenal win for us.”