It will be fairly obvious who this driver is, but after a 2 year break from the sport, many had low expectations for the returning 2007 champion. A test at Valencia in early February proved helpful to this driver, who went on to exceed…most expectations for his return.
4. Kimi Raikkonen
Pre-season testing was used partly as a chance to get the feeling for an F1 car back along with developing the promising E20 Lotus. It proved easy on its tires and consistent over long runs, something which would prove crucial over the 2012 season.
In Melbourne, things got off to a bad start, as Kimi dropped out of Q1. In the race, he made good progress and took advantage of a last lap crash to finish a solid 7th place.
In Malaysia, Kimi qualified much better in 5th place. In the race, the torrential rain threw off everyone except for Kimi, who stayed his ground and finished in 5th. He was actually catching the leaders pretty quickly towards the end of the race. Fastest lap was also a nice reward for a hard days work.
In China, Kimi was still improving. He qualified 5th again, which turned into 4th with Hamilton’s gearbox penalty. In the race, he was at his most impressive so far in the season. He was firmly in the hunt for the podium and was running a legitimate second towards the end of the race. However, a bad tire strategy left him on very old tires with a massive train of cars battling for positions behind him. Only a few laps from the end, Kimi ran a bit wide onto the marbles, which opened the floodgate. In the span of two laps, while he was regaining his composure, Kimi dropped from 2nd to 14th. His tires were too old for him to attack for positions. He finished a promising day without any points.
Bahrain was a track which seemed to suit the Lotus. With track temperature often being the deciding factor in each weekend’s grid, the high temperature of the Sakir circuit should have suited the Lotus. Qualifying didn’t go we’ll for Kimi. He tried just one lap in Q2 to save tires, but ended up 12th. This did, however, allow him to choose his starting tire.
On race day, he made a great start and had a good tussle with Massa in the opening laps. He eventually got past and set about being the fastest car on track. Like his teammate, he was picking off drivers one by one and found himself behind leader Vettel for a lot of the race. He had a perfect chance to overtake Vettel, as he was faster at the time, but didn’t make the most of his chance. After his one chance to take the lead, his tires started to fade. He stayed with Vettel to take a fine 2nd place at the flag, with his teammate 3rd.
In Spain, Lotus was still one of the cars to beat. A fifth place qualifying effort became 4th again with Hamilton’s exclusion. Kimi stayed in touch with the leaders throughout the race. In the last quarter of the race, with his last pit stop done, Kimi managed to claw back 17 seconds to catch the leaders. In the end, he couldn’t get past, but another podium was a good result at the end of the day.
In Monaco, a recurring problem was at it again. Kimi has specific preferences when it comes to steering feel, the Finn requiring a very light and sensitive system. He never got the steering to his liking and spent most of the practices in the pits trying to sort it out. This put him on the backfoot for the race, and ended Sunday in 9th place.
In Canada, Kimi had another underwhelming race, the steering still causing some issues. A 12th place qualifying turned into another 9th place at the end of the race.
Back in Europe, the hot Valencia street circuit suited the Lotus E20. Kimi was back on form and qualified his almost usual 5th place. On race day, Kimi had some great battles with several drivers, and was there to pick up the pieces after the retirements of Vettel, Grojean and Hamilton, along with Maldonado’s delay in his crash. At the end of it all, he took another fantastic 2nd place behind Alonso.
In England, the long, fast corners of Silverstone suited the Lotus. The rain, however, didn’t as much. Kimi qualified 6th on a track where he could have been higher, but it was decent nonetheless. In the race, he got tangled up a little in the new complex of turns introduced in 2010. He lost time and places after he had made a good start. Kimi, couldn’t stay with the leading 4 drivers from Red Bull and Ferrari, but got ahead of Schumacher to finish 5th, with fastest lap also to his name.
Germany brought another solid podium after an inconspicuous race. Had Vettel not illegally passed Button, Kimi would have been 4th.
In Hungary, hot temperatures on race day were on the menu. Another 5th place grid position was a bit disappointing considering his teammates’s front row start. However, he was solid in the first two stints, sizing everyone up for an assault on the leader in the 3rd stint. The characteristics of the Hungaroring don’t allow for any serious passing. Kimi was clearly faster than leader, Hamilton, but couldn’t get quite close enough in the DRS zone to make a serious challenge for a pass. He came home 2nd, just 1 second behind the leader.
In Belgium, Kimi impressed again with another inconspicuous podium, however, many thought he would and should have won the race.
From Italy to India, Kimi finished 5-6-6-5-7. Scoring solid pints in these races kept him in the title chase when his rivals fell in and out of form.
Abu Dhabi was certainly the highlight of Kimi’s season and one of the highlights for everyone. Another 5th place qualifying became 4th with Vettel’s exclusion from qualifying and a great start, shot him into 2nd behind Hamilton. When Hamilton retired with a mechanical failure, Kimi gracefully picked up the torch and resisted huge late race pressure from Alonso to take his first win of the season.
Kimi had another solid race to 6th in Austin and an interesting race in Brazil where he famously got lost on the outskirts of the track.
Kimi’s return to formula 1 was welcomed enthusiastically, but not everyone’s expectations for the Finn were too high. While there were times when Kimi could have done more in the races and especially qualifying, there is absolutely no doubt that his return was a resounding success. Many question his motivation, including me at times, and I hope he stays motivated enough next year to mount another title challenge. Because we all know he’s still got it in him.