The rumours of a Kimi Raikkonen F1 comeback have surfaced
again, this time with Williams-Renault next year, but could the 'Ice Man'
really return - and if so what does each party have to gain?
Williams confirmed last weekend that former world
champion Raikkonen paid a private visit to their factory in Grove before the
Italian Grand Prix as they seek to finalise their driver line-up for 2012.
Pastor Maldonado is believed to have a spot guaranteed
with backing from PDSVA but Rubens Barrichello's place is seriously under
threat and he has spoken quite frankly about his situation, saying the team has
"not given me a good car yet" but suggesting they "should stick
together" to get the best out of the relationship next year.
In contrast, it seems Williams are looking elsewhere.
Adrian Sutil is known to have also visited the factory while Bruno Senna could
be a very attractive option (with Brazilian funding) if he finds no space at
the Genii Captial-owned Lotus GP team.
As a former world champion, it is easy to see why
Raikkonen would be tempting for Williams, from both marketing and performance
perspectives. But does he come with too many problems?
THE DOWN SIDES
There are many who doubt Raikkonen's overall commitment
to racing, with the famous 'icecreamgate' incident in Malaysia 2009 leaving a
hard-to-erase black mark on the Finn's credentials.
It has also been suggested that the Finn lacks the ability
to lead a team and drive it forward, with suggestions that he feels insecure if
his team-mate appears to have the team behind him (as happened with Massa at
Ferrari) and that he has a resistance to marketing commitments and a lack of
motivation for engineering briefings.
At 31, Raikkonen sits in the middle of the F1 age pack,
not in the twilight of his career but not as young as the leaders of F1's
latest era, the likes of Sebastian Vettel, Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg.
His raw talent has never been in question - his natural
racing instinct is one of the sharpest seen in F1's recent years - but it is
the regularity that he allows this to be seen that frustrates his fans.
It is worth remembering, however, that the Finn did put
in a few strong departing performances in his final year with Ferrari, after
Felipe Massa had been sidelined through injury. Racing a poor car faster than
should have been possible, he took good podium finishes while Massa's
replacements Luca Badoer and Giancarlo Fisichella struggled to even get through
the first part of qualifying.
WHAT'S IN IT FOR WILLIAMS?
The former champions have been in slow decline in recent
years and have had one of their worst seasons in recent history this year,
suffering from a lack of performance with the customer Cosworth engine and
failing to make their miniscule gearbox gamble work to full effect.
A ninth place finish in the constructors' championship
will not bring much prize money to the table for future development, but the
team has been starting to put things in place ready to rise again.
Mike Coughlan, who worked for McLaren when Raikkonen was
there, has joined to take the technical lead in place of departing technical
director Sam Michael and is supported by a strong backroom in all areas, ready
to take control if long-time leader Patrick Head's rumoured retirement happens
at the end of the year.
More important than that, however, is the incoming supply
of Renault engines, which the team announced with a fanfare of excitement
earlier this year, referring back to the era of success enjoyed by
Williams-Renault in the past and pointing towards a promising future.
That said, since then Red Bull Racing has firmly sided
with the French engine manufacturer, taking the position as the effective 'works'
team and raising question marks over the strength of the Williams-Renault
relationship and the level of support they will receive.
Bringing in Raikkonen will instantly take Williams into
the headlines - and if the car is good enough to bring some good results the
interest of potential financial backers could follow. If the car is not a step
up, however, the relationship could be more damaging than good.
There is also a chance that Williams are playing the
Raikkonen card in the same way that Renault did last year - using his interest
to drive the price tag for the seat higher before settling for one of the
younger drivers who can bring in the cash. And only Williams know if that is
WHAT'S IN IT FOR RAIKKONEN?
Firstly, Raikkonen did not actually choose to leave
Formula One - he was ejected by Ferrari in favour of Alonso, and with limited
options he chose a 'fun' rally move instead.
That rallying experience has not been the success he had
hoped, with numerous crashes caused by over driving and reasonable but not
headline grabbing results. Kubica's crash will also have made it clear how
lucky he has been not to suffer any serious injuries.
A foray into NASCAR earlier this year, which Raikkonen
mixed with his rally commitments, looked promising initially but was ultimately
unsuccessful, ending with a 27th place finish and a return to Europe
with his North American plans left 'open'.
If he wants to continue his racing career at the highest
level, then, his options are reducing and his cache as an active F1 world
champion will only go down the longer he stays off the Grand Prix grid, the
longer he has without experiencing modern F1 machinery.
And that is why Williams might just do the job for next
year - because it is 2013 that Raikkonen has his eye on.
If he does sign up for Williams, no matter what car the
team gives him, then as long as he can drive like he did on those few occasions
when he shone at Ferrari, his stock will rise just in time for what could be a
major re-shuffle in the driver landscape...