With 10 races gone and nine remaining in the 2013 season, Kimi Raikkonen is Sebastian Vettel’s closest challenger, albeit a seemingly vast 38 points behind. Whilst I must confess that I didn't expect Kimi to be in the top two at this stage of the season and would be surprised if he remains ahead of either Fernando Alonso or Lewis Hamilton by the season’s end, I’m pleased that he is.
Raikkonen is a welcome breath of fresh air to a sport seemingly overpopulated by PR-manufactured robots. The Finn is different. He’s nicknamed the "Ice Man" because of his chilled persona and relaxed attitude that has seen him asleep in the garage only minutes before the start of a race.
He also isn't afraid to say what he thinks from his now famous radio exchange to his engineer in Abu Dhabi last year to saying that someone should "punch Sergio Perez in the face" after the McLaren driver crashed into him at Monaco this year as quoted in BBC Sport.
Just type Kimi Raikkonen into YouTube and you’ll get a number of amusing clips ranging from drunken antics on boats to being kidnapped into signing a contract and his latest Renault advert where he’s hanging out on a beach with no idea as to why he’s there apart from the fact that’s where his car took him.
His fascinating personality aside, the Finn is also quick. And importantly this season, in the James Allison masterminded Lotus E2,1 he also has a car that suits his driving style and the chassis seems to be better suited to manage the Pirelli’s high rates of degradation better than many of its rivals.
Raikkonen got off to the best possible start in Australia, making one less stop than his rivals en route to a comfortable victory. If Australia was a welcome surprise, Malaysia was a reality check as Raikkonen was slapped with a three-place grid penalty for impeding Nico Rosberg in qualifying before losing part of his front wing at the start of the race. The Finn eventually finishing seventh.
He qualified second in China, and despite losing places at the start and suffering damage in an early contact with Perez, his race pace remained strong and he made his final stop earlier than Lewis Hamilton before dialing in a couple of quick laps to put him second—which is where he stayed.
So after the opening three races, Raikkonen was only three points behind Vettel, but the gap increased in Bahrain as the German drove a flawless race whilst Raikkonen’s drive from eighth on the grid to second again demonstrated the efficiency of the Lotus E21’s race pace. He repeated the fete in Spain as Raikkonen was the only driver to stop three times to the other's four. It proved the correct decision, with the Finn passing both Vettel and Felipe Massa before ending up nine seconds behind race winner Alonso.
The gap was back to three points going into Monaco, but after qualifying fifth with a new steering rack, Raikkonen was punted into an unscheduled pit stop by Sergio Perez. That led to the Finn's comment that perhaps someone should "punch him in the face." Only a single point in Monaco left him further behind Vettel and having been handed a two-place grid penalty in Canada for not exiting the pit lane from the fast lane, a botched pit stop cost him further time and a ninth-place finish.
A wrong call not to stop for a final set of hards under the safety car at Silverstone cost Raikkonen a likely podium as his tyres lost grip in the final stint, but Germany produced an absolute classic duel between Raikkonen and Vettel. Lotus looked set for a two stopper until a safety car period brought about by Jules Bianchi’s flaming Marussia, which forced Raikkonen to pit from the lead with 11 laps remaining. He narrowed the gap to just a second at the flag in the closest finish of the season.
The roles were reversed in Hungary. Vettel was right behind Raikkonen at the finish as Hamilton strolled away with the race win.
It does seem a strong possibility that if Raikkonen fails in his improbable task to win a second drivers’ title with the Lotus team in 2013, he’ll be given the mouth-watering opportunity to go for the title as Vettel’s Red Bull teammate in 2014.
Red Bull team boss Christian Horner admitted to Autosport that Raikkonen’s salary will not be a factor in the decision of who gets Mark Webber’s vacant seat. So it seems highly likely that the in-demand Finn may well be off to pastures new with a decision set to be announced at either Spa or Monza.
Kimi’s mid-season marks:
Race craft: 9/10
Summary: Kimi is having a blinder of a season and the Lotus E21 seems ideally suited to his driving style. I expect more podiums to come and perhaps the odd win, but ultimately, I see someone else as top of the class this season.