Kimi RaikkonenKimi Raikkonen got back behind the wheel of an F1 car for the first time since 2009 this week — but while it is good to hear positive comments from him and his new Lotus team, is it all a bit too early?
It's not easy getting back into F1 — as well demonstrated by seven-times world champion Michael Schumacher — but for Raikkonen the terms of his return are rather different.
Schumacher's comeback was rightly greeted with scepticism, and although he has been well beaten by team-mate Nico Rosberg, his reputation is still only slightly damaged rather than destroyed, because it was generally acknowledged that his return was a no-win situation.
Raikkonen, meanwhile, left F1 under a cloud, released by Ferrari one year before the end of his contract having seemed to show little passion for his role as the team's number one. That disappointing exit means his sublime skill is now weighed down by opposing negative motivation issues — and it will be interesting to see what the balance is when the 2012 season begins.
When he returned, the very first question asked to his new employers was: 'what's his motivation like?'
The response, of course, was positive: talk of a driver immediately back on the money, keen to be out on track but equally happy to take as much time as necessary talking things over in the garage. So motivated was Raikkonen, it appears, he got through the second day of testing quicker than planned and was able to knock off early — a rather ironic end, given how much that would have delighted the Raikkonen of 2009.
By choosing not to do a few extra laps, we can only assume Raikkonen felt he was already back in the groove. Even if he was, though, that groove was very different to the one he will experience when the real work starts next month.
FOUR KEY QUESTIONS
With an apparently motivated Raikkonen brimming with natural talent, four key issues remain to affect the success of Raikkonen's comeback: his physical fitness; the sharpness of his racing mind; the atmosphere in the team; the new car.
And none of these have been properly tested yet.
Raikkonen says he has been working 'as before' on his fitness — whether that's a good thing or not remains to be seen! — but while complex machinery is now available to allow drivers to build their neck and arm muscles to cope with the intense cornering and steering forces in F1, there is nothing like racing to develop genuine race fitness.
His time in rallying may have even enhanced his already excellent natural car control, while his NASCAR experience will have kept him up to speed with wheel-to-wheel dicing - but he will not be race fit as the cornering g-forces in both these types of racing are much, much lower than in F1.
The 171 laps — more than two race distances — that he completed this week were in a 2010-spec Renault, due to rules stipulating teams cannot test cars or parts newer than two-years-old on private test sessions.
More importantly, the running was on Pirelli's demonstration tyres, designed specifically for long life and unable to produce anywhere near the levels of grip of the real F1 race tyres — which means less cornering force on the driver.
Fitness, then, is still to be properly tested, while sharpness of race craft will only be seen at the opening Grand Prix. The new car is still being completed, and the team of people who ran Raikkonen this week was not the group that will become his usual race team in the season.
All that is to come. But for now, at least, the first basic steps of the Kimi comeback appear have gone well.
Alan Permane, the team's track operations director, said he would not have known Raikkonen hadn't been driving last season after the Finn's performance so far. Let's hope he feels the same when the former world champion gets out on track with the drivers who were...