Kimi Raikkonen stays at Ferrari for 2016: The reasons why
Examining the reasons behind Ferrari's unexpected decision to retain Kimi Raikkonen alongside Sebastian Vettel for 2016.
By Mike Wise, Pete Gill and James Galloway
Last Updated: 25/08/15 2:21pm
Ferrari want stability
Italy might have a reputation for holding elections like they're going out of style, but while the political machinations at Maranello can also seem fraught at times - last year being a case in point - their driver line-ups have tended to stand in marked contrast.
Just six drivers - Michael Schumacher, Rubens Barrichello, Felipe Massa, Kimi Raikkonen, Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel - have been employed over the last 15 years, ample proof that the Scuderia like to run a steady ship in that regard.
One suspects they see such stability as a hallmark of a successful operation: contrast the dominance of the Schumacher-Barrichello years with the revolving door of the early 1990s, for example, when they were in the doldrums, Alain Prost was sacked in-season and the likes of Ivan Capelli and Nicola Larini were flitting in and out.
Raikkonen is on a different level altogether and has a wealth of experience, including five seasons with his current team. And…
The Vettel-Raikkonen relationship works well
Honestly, when was the last time you looked at a Ferrari line-up and thought, 'I just don't know who has the upper hand here'? Most of us would point to the 2008 season, when Raikkonen was the defending champion but Massa challenged for the title. Pure talent tends to ensure a de-facto No 1 driver in a team but the process of natural selection goes a step further at Ferrari, thanks to the awesome commitment and political skills their superstars also tend to possess.
In that respect, Vettel is like Schumacher and Alonso, with their team-mates invariably playing second fiddle. Raikkonen isn't by any means a No 2 driver, which helps explain why that sort of situation has developed again this season to the benefit of (just about) everyone. The pair get along well and, coming towards the end of his career, the Finn seems more willing to accept the status quo. He also seems to be driving Vettel back towards his best form. Moreover, technical director James Allison also likes Kimi, having worked with him at Lotus.
Ferrari are waiting for 2017's market to open up
Note that Ferrari have only extended Raikkonen's stay for a further season by exercising the option they already held on the Finn's services for 2017. For while the merits of their decision to retain Raikkonen might be questionable, the strategy of playing a waiting game is not. Why? Because unlike this year, when the majority of drivers remain under contract, next year will be a buyer's market.
Not only will Bottas be a free agent but so might Ricciardo (depending on the details of the small print in his Red Bull deal). And perhaps most pertinently of all, Max Verstappen may be available for hire after another season in which the Toro Rosso starlet could assuage any lingering doubts Ferrari, no fans of youth as a rule, may have about his calibre or state of readiness.
Red Bull, under whose umbrella Toro Rosso operate, will undoubtedly soon declare that Verstappen is tied to a long-term deal with the group. He probably is. But contracts in F1 are just pieces of paper whose principal use is a bargaining chip.
What price Verstappen if and when Red Bull enquire about a supply of engines from Ferrari, for instance? That's a scenario for another day. In the meantime, Ferrari have played a sensible hand, retaining Raikkonen on a one-year deal which Bottas would almost certainly have rejected. When the time comes in 12 or so months' time for F1's next major merry-go-round in the driver market, Ferrari will be calling the tune.
Bottas looked too expensive for 2016
With both of Raikkonen's likeliest potential replacements under contract for next year, Ferrari's 2015 options never boiled down to a simple 'him or him' choice. Instead, once Red Bull flatly refused to countenance letting Daniel Ricciardo depart, their decision effectively amounted to 'Kimi or Bottas plus £10m' - the amount of money Williams were reputedly demanding in exchange for releasing the Finn a year early from his current deal.
Even when Bottas excelling at the start of the year - finishing fifth at Malaysia after missing Australia through a troublesome back injury, fourth in Spain and Bahrain, and then reaching the podium in Canada - it was tough to argue that his potential upgrade in performance was commensurate with such a sum. He's good, no question. And he very probably would deliver better results than Raikkonen has produced this year.
But £10m-worth better? Not according to his recent form and, more importantly, not judging by a comparison of his results with those of Felipe Massa, a known quantity as far as Ferrari are concerned. Ultimately, paying £10m for Bottas over Raikkonen was an expensive gamble that not even Ferrari, the richest team in F1, were willing to take.
Kimi hasn't actually been that bad
Yes, Raikkonen's contract extension - and particularly the timing of it - has been greeted with a fair deal of surprise among the media, but has Kimi's form really been all that wretched? We know about the Iceman's struggles to string a single qualifying lap together ever since his return to Maranello last year, but as he himself has pointed out several times already, 2015 has hardly been the "disaster" of 2014.
Much of that, undoubtedly, is down to the big step forward Ferrari have made with their car and engine, but Raikkonen has already scored 21 points more than he managed in the whole of last season - despite three retirements in 10 races.
While his bizarre lap-one crash in Austria, when he collected Fernando Alonso, hardly pointed to a driver on top of his game, his other DNFs in Australia and Hungary were car related - retirements which probably cost him in the region of 28 points all told.
Had he enjoyed the 100% reliability from the SF15-T of his team-mate, those extra points would have put him comfortably ahead of Williams' Valtteri Bottas in fourth in the drivers' standings, rather than just behind, and a whole lot closer to Vettel. There have been flashes of the 'old Kimi' too, particularly on race-day in Bahrain when he would probably have won had the race been a few laps longer.
Flashes of podium-finishing form are currently not enough to consistently trouble a revitalised Vettel - who let's not forget, is a good way away yet from the veteran stage of his career - but do Ferrari, still a little way adrift of being a title-winning force again, actually really need Raikkonen to be quite on his team-mate's level every week?