The year was 2001. I was playing the F1 2001 game by EA Sports as Mika Hakkinen in the McLaren, and during the presentation of the grid, I came across a Kimi Raikkonen in a Sauber Petronas, in the lower half of the field. An instant connection got formed that day. Little did I know that this young Finnish Racer would leave a lasting impression on my life and race for almost two decades in F1.
Hailing from Espoo in Finland, Raikkonen had already impressed Peter Sauber during a private test in 2000. The youngster had completed only 23 single-seater races and competed only in Formula Renault after his karting days. So impressed was Sauber with Raikkonen's showing at the test that he left no stone unturned in securing him a super licence and an F1 drive in 2001.
After his exploits at Sauber, which established him as the next Finnish superstar, he switched to McLaren in 2002, becoming the team's new "Flying Finn". Those were the years of men like Ron Dennis, Martin Whitmarsh and Nobert Haug at the helm, locked in intense battles with Michael Schumacher, Jean Todt and Ross Brawn, who were at Ferrari.
Those years at McLaren had a lot of highs, but also several lows for Raikkonen. Although the cars were title challengers every alternate year ( 2003 and 2005 ), they were highly unreliable. Raikkonen lost out on two world titles, retiring from the lead due to mechanical failures several times. During his stint at McLaren, I struggled to keep up with the racing due to my academic commitments. But when I did watch a race, my eyes searched for the "RAI" in the classification. Hopes arose when he was in the top 3 and sunk when he retired. Whatever was the result, accessing McLaren's site to read what transpired in the race ( including the top brass' assessment ) became a ritual.
Who can forget the famous victories that Raikkonen had with McLaren, Malaysia 2003, Spa 2004 & 05, Monaco 2005 and Suzuka 2005, to name a few! There was no lack of talent, yet the machine wasn't doing Raikkonen justice. I began to wonder if he would ever emulate his compatriot Hakkinen and win a title at the misfiring McLaren.
Then came the big move in the latter half of 2006. Speculations were rife that Schumacher, the most successful driver of the sport, would walk away at the end of the year, and Raikkonen was his recommendation to Ferrari. The confirmation came through after the Italian GP, and the Finn would don the Scuderia overalls in 2007.
Having been a McLaren fan even before Hakkinen, I had to choose between Raikkonen and the team. I chose Raikkonen and am glad that I did!
Despite a slow start at Ferrari, Raikkonen slowly began to get to grips with his new car. He looked all but out of title contention against McLaren's protegee and rookie Hamilton. However, Hamilton's retirement at Shanghai took the title battle to the season finale in Brazil.
I still remember that Sunday night. Preparing for my engineering exam, which was the next day, I was buzzing with excitement about the possibility of Raikkonen getting crowned Champion. Something in me told me that he would win. Ironically, McLaren and Hamilton hadn't suffered from any mechanical issues that year. The race got underway, and Hamilton's gearbox malfunctioned! With the Briton languishing at the back of the pack, Raikkonen was suddenly in contention for the title! Ferrari completed a swap of positions during the pit stops to give Raikkonen the lead. As soon as Raikkonen crossed the finish line to victory, Ferrari confirmed that he was World Champion, having won it by one point!!
I was ecstatic in my living room, the tensions of an exam forgotten. Finally, all the heartaches of the previous five years ended! Kimi Raikkonen was an F1 World Champion!!
In 2008, Ferrari chased a development plan contrary to what Raikkonen desired, and the latter had to play a support role to teammate Massa's title fight. The title decider was in Brazil once again, and Hamilton didn't falter this time. 2009 saw a regulations overhaul and the big guns faltered against Brawn GP and Button, who romped to the World Title. A stellar drive by Raikkonen gave Ferrari its only win in Belgium. The Finn got called "The King of Spa" after his famous victory!
With Alonso eyeing a seat in a top team after his unceremonious exit from McLaren at the end of 2007, Ferrari seemed a possible destination. The negotiations proved successful, and Ferrari cut short Raikkonen's contract. The Finn got replaced for 2010 and failed to secure a drive in the sport!
He left F1 to pursue a career in Rallying with a short stint in Nascar. I was gutted with the news and couldn't keep up with his racing career elsewhere. With Raikkonen out of F1, I lost interest in the sport, unable to watch the races with the same passion. My sporting interests slowly began to shift to Moto GP and Football. Although I did attend the inaugural Indian GP in 2011, I couldn't imagine F1 without Raikkonen...
Come 29th November 2011. I was in my office going through some sports-related news on a couple of websites. Suddenly, I came across an article that read, "Raikkonen returns to F1 in 2012 with Lotus"!!
The Iceman was back, in F1, on a two-year deal! That day, my love for the sport got reignited. More importantly, with my academic and educational commitments complete, I got presented with the opportunity of travelling to F1 races, something I wouldn't pass up considering that it was only a two-year deal for Raikkonen. And so began my journey to meet my hero in person!
Malaysia, Silverstone, Singapore, India, Nurburgring, Monza, Abu Dhabi were the races I got to be at, meeting Raikkonen on a few occasions.
Raikkonen's stellar performances at Lotus F1 left the team at the brink of bankruptcy. The Finn went on to record two wins and thirteen podiums during his two-year tenure. His performances attracted the attention of an old employer, and for 2014, the Finn rejoined Ferrari! In his words, "I am coming home".
His second stint at Ferrari lasted five years that had Alonso and Vettel as codrivers. Strategic bungles and misfortunes played spoilsport more often than not. There were many memorable performances, and 2018 was Raikkonen's strongest year that included victory at the Circuit of the Americas. During his time at Ferrari, I attended races at the following venues - Hockenheimring, COTA, Austria, Belgium, Spain, Hungary, Abu Dhabi.
Although many media personnel declared Raikkonen a spent force, the Finn still had more to give to the sport. In 2019, he made an unthinkable return to Sauber F1 ( rechristened to Alfa Romeo Racing ), his first employer in the sport. In 2019, I followed Raikkonen to Canada, Belgium and Suzuka.
I had made elaborate plans for 2020, but then the world got hit by the Pandemic COVID-19. 2020 was the first year since Raikkonen's return to F1, in which I failed to be at a live race. The Pandemic continues to deny me the chance of attending a race in 2021, and with Raikkonen announcing that he would walk away from F1 at the end of the season, I am hoping and praying to be at Abu Dhabi for the final race.
Raikkonen remains the most successful Finnish driver in F1 and also Ferrari's last Champion. He might not be the one with the most victories or championships, and probably his career statistics might look uninspiring to many. For many, Raikkonen was even past his prime. However, no one can disagree about the legacy he has built in the sport.
Drivers ( current and past ) praised him for being a fair yet hard racer. Those who knew him as a teammate appreciated his uncomplicated and straightforward attitude to life and racing. A man of few words, Raikkonen spoke his mind, rarely adhering to PR generated responses, was apolitical and focussed only on what unfolded behind the wheel. Those who had worked with Raikkonen as race engineers or mechanics acknowledged his ability to understand car setups. His feedback and suggestions were precise, reminiscent of Schumacher as per Andrea Stella. Whatever be the situation, Raikkonen was always committed to the cause and the betterment of his team. He was one of those drivers who didn't spend time at a simulator before heading to a new circuit, a born racer, like an Alonso or Vettel or Hamilton, a breed rarely seen nowadays.
To the world, he still looks demotivated, disinterested and ice-cold in his behaviour. But those who got to know him up close or to those who saw him live life from close quarters, Raikkonen is a man full of joy, love and care, focused on his professional commitments. With the arrival of a partner in Minttu Raikkonen, his life became more fulfilling, and now with kids like Robin and Rianna, Kimi has his days full of daddy duties. Priorities change with time.
2021 has been the year of retirements, with Moto GP legend Valentino Rossi calling it a day and Anthony Davidson leaving WEC. Retirement is inevitable for every athlete, and as a fan, you always hope for one more year. At 42, his age is catching up with Raikkonen, and although he hasn't lost his competitive edge ( as evident from his consistent results for Alfa Romeo ), a time comes when one has to stop. It isn't easy to compete with the best drivers on the planet for two decades, but Raikkonen managed to ace it with aplomb.
For me, I am still struggling to accept Raikkonen's absence from the grid in 2022. In the past, without Raikkonen, F1 wasn't likeable anymore.
"Kimianks", a term made with Kimi and initials from my name ( Ankush ), became my identity on all social media platforms for the past two decades. Thanks to Raikkonen, I had the privilege of going to some of the most stunning race tracks, getting close to the action and sharing my passion with like-minded fans. Lotus F1 ( now Alpine F1 ), Scuderia Ferrari and Alfa Romeo Racing had been kind enough to give me enhanced access and the pleasure of watching my hero up close, sharing their joys in the times of celebrations, for which I shall always be thankful.
The life lessons that Raikkonen has taught me are invaluable - being transparent and straightforward in your profession, celebrating without inhibitions, valuing family above everything else and maintaining a close circle of confidants.
I take this opportunity to thank the Raikkonen family ( his parents, siblings, wife and kids ) for all the support provided to Kimi over the years, from the humble beginnings at karting to acing it in the F1 world. A big thank you to his Physical Trainer Mark Arnall for keeping him fit and healthy throughout his career. It has been such a glorious training career for Mark, having trained the likes of Hakkinen and Raikkonen during their tenures in the sport. To the Robertsons and Mr Sami Visa, thank you for taking care of his contractual and sponsorship obligations. And finally, thank you to every team member that has been part of Raikkonen's journey through F1, at Alfa Romeo Racing F1, McLaren F1, Scuderia Ferrari F1 and Lotus ( Alpine F1 ).
As the Iceman bid adieu to the sport at Alfa Romeo's farewell party at Hinwil in Switzerland, I, as a fan, knew that an incredible journey was coming to an end. It has been a blessing to be called a Kimi Raikkonen fan over the past two decades, and I shall remain a fan, admirer and a fanatic for life.
The journey hasn't ended yet, and two races remain before the curtains close on an illustrious career. I still garner hopes of being at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. I am praying that I get see Kimi Raikkonen race one last time and say my farewells in person.
There is so much more to say, so much more to process, and words can never do justice to the journey I have had as a fan of the ICEMAN, the Flying Finn, KIMI RAIKKONEN!
Here are some of the memories I cherish with Kimi :
Like he said, on the day of his retirement, "This is it"... profound words... probably, for me too, this might be it...
Thank you, Kimi, thank you. Wishing you and the family the very best for the future and pray for the Almighty's blessing and grace on your life, always!
Hopefully, we shall meet again, someday!
To Kimi Raikkonen, an F1 Racer, an F1 World Champion, a Legend.. Thank you for everything! Thank you!