Can Raikkonen fire in the desert?
The Bahrain Grand Prix holds a curious place in Formula One folklore as a race that elicits from fans impatience, indignance and excitement, sometimes all at once.
Impatience for the string of uninteresting races that for a time was the hallmark of the grand prix in the tiny desert kingdom, particularly in 2010, when it was run on the ‘Sakhir Endurance Circuit’, a longer and particularly tedious layout of the regular track.
indignance for the way the hosting of the race persisted throughout the years of the Arab Spring — the 2011 event aside, which was cancelled after a messy attempt to postpone it at the height of the unrest — to the condemnation, in some quarters ongoing, of human rights watchers.
But so too has excitement become a fixed part of the grand prix’s build-up, particularly in its later years. Its transition in 2014 from a day race run in the scorching Arabian sun to one hosted in the milder twilight has enlivened the event and, perhaps by pure coincidence, delivered a series of classic races.
But while Formula One fans are only now discovering a passion for the Bahrain Grand Prix, not so Kimi Raikkonen, who has had a veritable racing love affair with the circuit more or less since its 2014 addition to the calendar.
That first race aside — the 2014 Bahrain Grand Prix is the Finn’s only retirement at the track, borne of an engine problem — Raikkonen has finished on the podium eight times from his 11 finishes, including five second places. The Sakhir International Circuit is something of a Kimi stronghold.
However, absent from this otherwise stellar record is an all-important victory, an obvious blemish for a world champion blessed with race-winning cars for most of his Formula One career.
Indeed much as the Bahrain has grown in popularity in recent seasons, so too has a distinct lack of ultimate success become characteristic of the career of the once exciting Raikkonen since his return to Ferrari in 2014.
After leading the struggling Lotus team in 2012 and 2013, taking two victories in the process, Kimi has been unquestionably the second driver for the Scuderia, first being smacked down to the tune of 106 points at the hands of Fernando Alonso in 2014, then put in his place by Sebastian Vettel by 266 points in 2015, 2016 and 2017.
So dire were his early results last season that Ferrari CEO Sergio Marchionne publicly admonished him after a particularly insipid Chinese Grand Prix performance.
His form later improved, notably with pole position and a podium finish at the Monaco Grand Prix, and though he earnt himself another one-year deal by the end of the season, Marchionne remained lukewarm.
“My personal opinion is that if we find the right key, Raikkonen drives like a god,” he said. “When things go right, it’s a pleasure to see him driving. In other moments it seems like he takes a break.
“Probably this is the last season to find the right key.”
But Raikkonen, though infamously unmoved by virtually all external forces, thus earning him his ‘Ice Man’ moniker, could fairly claim that Ferrari isn’t allowing him to perform at his best, with perhaps the most notable example coming at Monte Carlo last season.
Though he scored pole for the first time in nine years at circuit where passing makes the pole-sitter the victor-elect, a controversial strategy decision appeared to hand the win to teammate Vettel, who started the race from second.
The body language of F1’s coolest customer as he stood on the podium spoke volumes.
It wouldn’t be the last time allusions to team partiality would enter the Finn’s mind.
Last round in Australia Raikkonen found himself again on the receiving end of an inferior strategy — though this time it had more to do with luck than premeditation — but even the whiff of a potential double-crossing was enough for him to bark angrily at his engineer.
Ferrari has never been shy about prioritising a number one driver, but of concern was that Vettel was given the only strategy capable of delivering a win despite being outqualified by Raikkonen — indeed despite being bettered by Raikkonen all weekend — and the points obviously being level at the opening race of the season.
That said, Ferrari would equally point to Kimi’s inconsistency across his second tenure with the team. The highs have teased a return to greatness, but for most of the rest of the time Vettel has easily had his measure.
It makes Kimi Raikkonen’s Bahrain Grand Prix only more important. Can he carry his Australian momentum forward to make himself a genuine title challenger, or has the key that unleashes the so-called driving god been lost for good?