By Alan Baldwin
LONDON (Reuters) – Kimi Raikkonen will not be going out of Formula One at the top, or even with a top team.
The announcement on Tuesday that the 2007 world champion is leaving Ferrari, the sport’s oldest, most glamorous and successful team, at the end of the season was only to be expected.
Less so was the subsequent revelation that the 38-year-old ‘Iceman’ had agreed a two-year deal to continue with Ferrari-powered Sauber in a swap with that team’s Monegasque rookie Charles Leclerc.
That will close a circle at least, the Swiss team being the ones who gave Raikkonen his debut in 2001 despite the powers-that-be fearing he was too inexperienced, and keep the Finn racing on into his 40s.
It will also please Formula One’s owners, already facing the retirement of double world champion Fernando Alonso, by keeping one of the best known and most popular drivers on the starting grid.
But the days when Raikkonen could hope for poles and wins, already scarce even at Ferrari where Sebastian Vettel is the main contender and team orders have been applied, are surely over now.
Sauber were last in 2017 and are ninth of 10 teams now, even if the signs are more encouraging than they were, and there is a likelihood that Raikkonen will now be simply making up the numbers.
The Finn will still relish racing with less media attention and more freedom, while for Ferrari there are also clear benefits.
For the first time in four years, they now have a new benchmark for four times champion Vettel and a (very) young driver who represents the future rather than the past.
Vettel has out-performed Raikkonen consistently since the pairing started in 2015 with the German’s move from Red Bull and the Finn is already 62 points adrift this season with seven races remaining.
If Raikkonen has been more competitive this year, taking nine podium finishes and pole at Ferrari’s home Italian Grand Prix with Formula One’s fastest ever lap, there are those who question whether Vettel is being pushed hard enough.
Some even wonder just how quick the German really is.
Ferrari will hope that the 20-year-old Leclerc, unless told to adopt a subservient role, can apply a bit more pressure and help answer those questions.
The gamble is that the youngster’s relative inexperience could impact, in the short-term at least, their constructors’ championship hopes as he finds his way under considerable scrutiny.
Fast-tracked from Sauber after just one season, Leclerc is a hot prospect but his arrival breaks with Ferrari’s recent preference for age and experience.
The last time Ferrari started a season without a race winner in both cars was in 2006 with Brazilian Felipe Massa drafted in alongside seven times champion Michael Schumacher after three years at Sauber and one as reserve.
Leclerc is part of a wave of hungry young drivers, including 20-year-old Max Verstappen at Red Bull and 18-year-old British rookie Lando Norris at McLaren, coming through and making their mark.
Raikkonen’s switch to Sauber is not such good news for other youngsters, however, with a seat now seemingly blocked for the next two years.
For the likes of Mercedes-backed 21-year-old Esteban Ocon, likely to lose his seat at Force India, or McLaren outcast Stoffel Vandoorne, the search goes on.
“I’ve got mixed feelings. I’m pleased Kimi is staying on but mostly I wish that Kimi had stepped aside at the top when he was revered, letting a young guy take his seat on the grid,” said former racer and Sky Sports commentator Martin Brundle.
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin; editing by Jason Neely)