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Countdown to F1 2012: Raikkonen Returns

Raikkonen tested a Pirelli-shod Renault R30 in Valencia earlier this week - Photo Credit: Andrew Ferraro/Lotus F1 Team

Raikkonen tested a Pirelli-shod Renault R30 in Valencia earlier this week - Photo Credit: Andrew Ferraro/Lotus F1 Team

 

In just over seven weeks, Formula 1 cars will line-up on the grid in Melbourne, Australia, for the first of 20 grand prix this season. Of the 24 drivers in those cars, one quarter of them will be world champions.

Last season we had five but in 2012, thanks to the return of 2007 champion Kimi Raikkonen, there will now be six title winners on the grid.

The Finn returns to the sport after two years away, with the landscape of Formula 1 somewhat different to what it was in 2009. How will the iceman do?

When Raikkonen stepped out of the car in Abu Dhabi that year, having driven his Ferrari to a disappointing twelfth place, Bridgestone was the tyre supplier, not Pirelli, and no-one even knew what an F-duct was, let alone DRS.

Furthermore, there were no teams with Lotus their name, Richard Branson's company was sponsoring the team winning the championship rather than owning an outfit struggling at the back of the grid, and HRT was just something to do with hormones.

But now, Raikkonen joins a team called Lotus – the one that used to be Renault, not the one now called Caterham (just to be clear). They finished last season as the fifth best team on the grid, some distance off Mercedes, who were comfortably fourth.

With that in mind, Raikkonen is clearly not going to be expected to be winning championships this year, or even races. But what pressures and expectations will he face and, most importantly perhaps, will he actually care?

Ferrari only came fourth in Raikkonen's last season in the sport, and so perhaps he is returning to a team at a similar standard to the one he left? However, the 32-year-old spent eight of his nine previous seasons in Formula 1 at either McLaren or Ferrari – normally two of the top teams – so joining a mid-field team that looks in need of a talismanic driver to haul them back to the front of the grid will be a new, and possibly unwanted, challenge for him.

However, even if Lotus show the same kind of form they demonstrated at the end of last season, Raikkonen will still be expected to score points on a regular basis. More than this though, he will need to beat Romain Grosjean, his new team-mate.

This may sound like an easy task for a veteran of 156 F1 starts and 18 wins, up against a relative rookie with just seven races and no points to his name. However, Grosjean is no slouch, having stormed his way unchallenged to last season's GP2 championship. His last race Formula 1 race, like Raikkonen's, was the final grand prix of 2009, so in this sense the pair are evenly matched.

Michael Schumacher gave a fine example of how difficult it is to return to Formula 1 after a break in 2010. Although he looked much stronger at the end of last season, Schumacher was comprehensively out-performed by Nico Rosberg in his first year back. Likewise, Raikkonen will not find Grosjean an easy team-mate to beat.

If he can pull it off, however, then Raikkonen's first season will be considered a success. If he beats the likes of Mercedes, or even the top teams, then Lotus will have been completely vindicated in their decision to bring the Finn back to the sport.

Some questioned Raikkonen's motivation in his final two seasons at Ferrari, especially when he was being beaten by Felipe Massa race after race. However, speaking to Sky Sports News after testing a 2010 Renault earlier this week, he conveyed eagerness at being back racing at the pinnacle of motorsport, despite seeming a little surprised to be back in F1.

“I had no plans for the future, I have no plans now for the future,” he said. “There was different choices for this year but I really wanted to do racing – I did some Nascar last year and I really enjoyed competing against people again. It was then that I decided to do some racing again and F1 is the highest level of racing and where people want to be.”

He sensibly warned that it would take time for him to become fully acclimatised with the nuances of the sport once again, something that both his fans and critics will have to bear in mind for the season ahead.

“Of course it takes a little bit of time to get used to it, but the main bits of driving – braking, turning, the normal things – don’t take many lap,” he added. “But learning about the car, the team and the tyres will take time.”

Raikkonen out on track in Valencia on Tuesday - Photo Credit: Andrew Ferraro/Lotus F1 Team

Raikkonen out on track in Valencia on Tuesday - Photo Credit: Andrew Ferraro/Lotus F1 Team