Though he’s currently suffering a tough return to Ferrari, few would disagree that Kimi Raikkonen is one of F1’s great natural talents.
Frighteningly fast, ludicrously brave and far more intelligent than he is given credit for, the Finn comfortably stands alongside Vettel, Alonso and Hamilton as a true great of the post-Schumacher era.
Peter Sauber was among the first to spot this. The laconic Swiss team owner discovered the inexperienced Raikkonen in 2000 and threw him straight into a full-time F1 seat the following year. Kimi thrived, setting the world alight for Sauber before being snapped up by McLaren. The rest is history.
But that first chance nearly didn’t come at all, because not everyone shared Sauber’s faith. In particular, the lack of belief from Red Bull – Sauber’s title sponsor at the time – nearly kept Kimi on the sidelines in 2001.
It could be said that Sauber were Red Bull’s route into F1. The energy drink giants began sponsoring the Hinwil-based squad in 1995 and eventually took a shareholding in the team. Red Bull also ran a junior squad in Formula 3000 (then the top F1 feeder series) with the express aim of helping their drivers reach Formula One.
By the 2000 season Sauber had grown tired of running veterans; their experience and salaries were substantial, but they rarely produced results to match. Jean Alesi, Johnny Herbert and Mika Salo had all passed through the team without making more than the occasional splash, so for 2001 Sauber decided to put his trust in youth. In one car he would field Nick Heidfeld, a McLaren protégé who had won Formula 3000 in 1999 and shown flashes of ability in the disastrous 2000 Prost-Peugeot.
Kimi was not their first choice to join the German. Sauber initially contacted Jenson Button’s managers to see if he was available for 2001. They told the team that Jenson already had a Benetton seat, but they might be interested in another youngster they were looking after.
Raikkonen was 22 and extremely raw, having contested just 23 single-seater races in Formula Renault, a category several rungs below F1. He had won over half of them on his way to the British title, but most would have expected a switch to Formula 3 or F3000 before he graduated to F1. Nevertheless, Sauber took a chance and handed Kimi a test.
Raikkonen made his debut in an F1 car at Mugello in September 2000 and quickly got to grips with the huge step up in machinery. The team were impressed – and they weren’t the only ones. Michael Schumacher, who was testing for Ferrari at the same time, told Sauber engineer Jacky Eeckelaert that their youngster had real potential.
Sauber’s initial plan was to appoint Kimi test driver for a year and build his experience but Eeckelaert, who saw something special in the Finn’s data, advised his boss to place Raikkonen straight in a race seat. He got another run later in the month, this time alongside Sauber’s long-time test driver Enrique Bernoldi.
Brazilian-born Bernoldi had just completed his second season in F3000 for the Red Bull Junior Team, taking a best result of fourth at Silverstone. He was a decent pair of hands but nothing special, and Raikkonen was faster when they tested together.
But Bernoldi was a Red Bull-backed driver and their owner, Dietrich Mateschitz, made it clear to Sauber who he wanted to see in the car. That put two powerful, successful men, both used to getting their own way, at loggerheads. Neither was willing to back down.
Other F1 figures were now weighing into the debate. By November, with rumours suggesting Kimi had already signed a deal for 2001, FIA President Max Mosley said he did not believe the youngster should be given the Super Licence necessary to compete in F1. Mosley wanted Raikkonen to spend at least a season in F3 or F3000, and he was not alone: 1997 world champion Jacques Villeneuve also suggested Raikkonen was entering F1 too soon.
But despite these concerns and Red Bull’s opposition to the move, Sauber had made up his mind. Kimi was handed a race seat for 2001. Mateschitz continued to disapprove, and paid for Bernoldi (pictured below on the far right) to race at tail-enders Arrows. After Raikkonen had taken a brilliant sixth-place finish on his F1 debut in Australia, the two parties announced that their relationship would end following the 2001 campaign.
“I understand they wanted to have their say,” said Sauber. “But only one person can run the team – that is why Red Bull will split with the team at the end of the year.”
Two months later – and following more impressive drives from Raikkonen – Mateschitz remained adamant that it had been wrong of Sauber to reject Bernoldi.
“Kimi has done a brilliant job and showed he has a big talent. The youngster has proved that he is a real professional.
“But it is wrong to claim that Bernoldi wouldn’t be as tough as he is. I’m sure that he would have achieved the same results in Sauber as Kimi.”
Time would eventually prove that view to be incorrect. But the relationship would be salvaged – in no small part thanks to Raikkonen’s performances. Eventually realising that the team had a once-in-a-generation star on their hands, Mateschitz agreed to continue funding Sauber beyond 2001. Having your logos on F1’s next big thing was ultimately too good to turn down.
Nevertheless, Red Bull scaled back their support of Sauber, who lost Raikkonen to McLaren at the end of the 2001 season. They continued to sponsor Bernoldi’s Arrows until the team went bust in mid-2002, then helped Christian Klien into a Jaguar seat for 2004. The disagreement over Raikkonen showed Mateschitz that he did not have the control he felt his investment warranted at Sauber. Despite his funds, decisions on drivers ultimately came down to Sauber himself, which prompted Mateschitz to look for his own F1 team. In 2004 he purchased the Jaguar squad, which became Red Bull Racing from 2005 onwards.
Kimi drove for McLaren for five years, winning nine grands prix, then moved to Ferrari in 2007 and clinched the world title. After switching to the World Rally Championship for two years he returned to F1 in 2012 and won again with Lotus. He is now back at Ferrari, struggling with a poor car but still undeniably one of the grid’s most gifted men.
Comparing him with Bernoldi would be unfair in the extreme. The Brazilian left F1 in 2002 and subsequently raced in several other single-seater championships, Brazilian stockcars and GTs. Though he has had a decent career, Mateschitz’s belief that he could match Raikkonen was clearly misguided.
But had the Red Bull man got his way in 2001 Kimi would still have broken through. Perhaps it would have taken an extra year or two, but talent of his rarity invariably finds its way on to the F1 grid one way or another.