Kimi in the 2012 Lotus GP race car (source Lotus GP)Rarely do successful athletes relive their glory days after taking a hiatus from their sport. Only a few of the best have accomplished this feat, with many quickly losing the edge on their game as age begins to take its toll. Michael Jordan is one of the few athletes to conquer this feat; he dabbled in baseball in 1994 after leaving his highly successful career in the NBA. With just a year of minor league baseball under his belt, Jordan ended up returning to basketball, making a great run for the playoffs but falling short of winning the title again.
Niki Lauda driving the McLaren MP4/2 in the 1984 Dallas Grand PrixIn the motorsports world, drivers don't often return to the hot seat; they either move on to another series or retire after competing in Formula 1. The most recent reminder in the industry is seven time world champion Michael Schumacher who left the sport in 2006 and returned in 2010. Despite fighting hard for his position, Schumacher has not made it back into the championship spotlight and has struggled to keep his car in contention for points.
Former Formula 1 driver Niki Lauda made quite a comeback following a serious accident and retirement from the sport in 1979, and even went on to earn another championship in 1984 by just half a point over Alain Prost. However, since Schumacher's return to F1, he has yet to step foot on the podium and finish above fourth position. This is quite a disappointment in many respects, yet maybe not a surprise at all.
Before it sounds like I am joining the anti-Schumacher camp (I'm not, I promise), we need to turn the attention back on Kimi Raikkonen, the 2007 Championship winner and a promising young driver who is making his comeback to Formula 1 this 2012 season.
Kimi had a successful early start in the sport and a great season in 2007, crowning him the world champ in his first year in the Ferrari car. Following a frustrating 2008 and 2009 season, he left the sport after failing to secure a contract with a team. From 2009 until 2011, Kimi had some short stints in other series, including a decent run in World Rally Championship (WRC) and races in both the NASCAR Truck and semi-pro NASCAR series.
Kimi Raikonnen with Lotus Renault GP team principal Eric Boullier Rumors began to run about of Kimi's return to Formula 1 last fall. Then, there was speculation that he would be joining the Williams team. However, on November 29 Lotus Renault GP announced they snatched him up for a two year contract beginning in 2012.
So, can we expect a modern day comeback to shake up the sport? If Schumacher's sabbatical was an indication, any time spent out of an F1 car can feel like a lifetime. Kimi, though ten years younger than Michael, must overcome additional obstacles. In addition to a two year hiatus from F1, the FIA rules have evolved (grumble grumble): back then we didn't have the same technical challenges that we have today, such as DRS. Luckily though, Kimi did get a chance to play around with the early KERS system in 2009 with Ferrari, though it was largely in it's infancy of development.
According to former Mclaren teamate David Coulthard and driver Jenson Button, Kimi's return will be stronger than ever before and a welcome sight for the sport. David says the following about Kimi while at the Race of Champions (ROC) this past December to Autosport:
"Kimi stopped too early in his career, there's no question about that," said Coulthard. "He's gone off and had some fun in rallying.
"I did an event with him earlier this year at the Red Bull Ring and he was just jumping on everything - whether it was motocross bikes or the different cars that were there, he just has a great feeling for pushing the limits. So I've got no doubt at all that he will be on the pace."
Even Jenson Button chimed in, offering his surprise about returning to the sport with Lotus Renault instead of Williams and the likely partying that will ensue:
"It was a shock to me that he's going to be racing for the team he is," said Button. "I was really surprised when they announced Kimi. I thought he had a chance at Williams."
"I think it's really good for the sport. As a driver, he's very, very competitive. If he really wants to race, he's going to be quick.
"From what I've heard from the engineers at McLaren, he knows what he's doing in terms of engineering and setting up the car.
"It's good to have him back and the races will be more fun and obviously the evenings after the races will be more fun..."
Kimi's return is likely to shake up the sport a bit, especially with the rise of the Lotus Renault team who has steadily climbed back into the spotlight this past year with a solid 5th position in the constructors championship, moving them into the 'top-tier' with the heavy hitters. Given the rough past couple of years at Williams, Kimi's decision to go with Lotus Renault may prove to be a great launching platform for him to return to the sport, get back into the groove of things, and pull off some great races this year.
Finally, let's not forget that Kimi is likely to be a great personality for new and existing fans of the sport. His stoic media contact has earned him the nickname of "Iceman," but off track, Kimi carries somewhat of a party animal reputation (just google "Kimi Raikkonen Boat Monaco"). Without a doubt, he's going to bring more excitement to the sport and cause quite a stir within the Formula 1 establishment. 2012 is going to be a great season.
// Lotus is doing a solid job of sharing info about Kimi's return via their site Lotus Renault GP, here's some Q&A's with Kimi.