Kimi Raikkonen’s shock return to the Ferrari fold to partner Fernando Alonso in what is arguably the strongest driver line up F1 has seen since the days of Prost and Senna, is a welcome shot in the arm for a sport which has been crying out for a new intra team rivalry for years.
The return of the ‘Iceman’ is particularly surprising considering that just four years ago Ferrari were desperate to get rid of him, paying out his twenty million euro salary to make way for Fernando Alonso; next season he will line up alongside him in the same car. It’s also a remarkable U-Turn for Ferrari who have consistently chosen one driver as team leader whom the team and car design is structured around, with the ‘second driver’ operating pretty much as a wingman.
It’s quite rare in recent history that two such great drivers reside in the same garage, primarily because it’s well known what can go wrong when this does occur. Alonso’s rivalry against Lewis Hamilton at McClaren in 2007 and Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna’s monumental feud during the 1980’s and 90’s are some of the best examples of the disasters that can occur when two top drivers (and ego’s) collide, illustrating the risks involved for Ferrari.
Yet For Ferrari it’s a risk worth taking. Firstly it bolsters their constructor’s championship challenge which has lagged in recent years due to the lacklustre Felipe Massa, who was never the same after his accident. Moreover it provides a far superior and accurate barometer for Alonso to measure himself against, which can only help him to raise his game which frankly he needs to if he is to beat Vettel and Red Bull.
That these two great drivers will be going up against each other is a pretty salivating prospect. Whether this pairing goes the same way as previous high profile ones depends almost entirely on Alonso. Raikkonen’s too much of a cool customer and far too apolitical to fall into that trap. On the other hand Alonso, a driver who clearly prefers to be in the position of team leader, often struggles when threatened with a competitive teammate as 2007 showed. He even struggled to cope on the incredibly rare occasions Giancarlo Fisichella beat him at Renault. With Raikkonen’s arrival his preferred status as the undisputed king of Ferrari is under threat, a position he has enjoyed for the last four seasons. It will be fascinating to see how he copes with this surprise development, and whether he throws his toys out of the pram again.
Yet regardless of whether a feud develops, we are guaranteed great racing as the two protagonists raise their games to new levels. History shows there’s an extra spice to intra team rivalries that just isn’t there when rivals drive for different teams. Most drivers can explain away being beaten by a rival due to the deficiencies in their vehicles or superiority of their opponents, that’s how drivers are able to rationalise being thrashed by Schumacher or Vettel. With teammates though there’s nowhere to hide, they’re completely exposed. It’s one of the few cases F1 drivers are on a level playing field, we can see how good he actually is, and that’s why they care so much as it’s their reputations and legacies on their line.
It’s also important for fans and journalists too when it comes to appraising F1 drivers. Indeed many F1 fans and journo’s still refuse to rate Sebastien Vettel as a great driver until he faces a top driver in the same team. Whilst there’s little doubt in my mind that he is the best driver by some margin it seems clear that many will not accept this until he faces a top driver. Thus the choice of the inexperienced Daniel Ricciardo as his partner next season is as much a missed opportunity for him as much as the sport.
This is also great news for F1 which for a while has been lacking a truly great rivalry. Hamilton and Alonso lasted only a year, Vettel and Webber threatened to take off but died a death when it became clear how much better the German was, and Hamilton and Button simmered along but never really got going. Raikkonen and Alonso is just what the sport needs as a shot in the arm after years of Vettel domination and the best drivers avoiding each over. Two of the best drivers and two of the most contrasting personalities in the most famous team, what more could you want? Let the sparks fly.