Kimi Räikkönen Mathematical Career Review

Known for his short, blunt responses to questions and his occasional radio outbursts, at times it feels like Kimi is more famous for his personality than his driving. Yet he is a world champion with an impressive 46 fastest laps in a career spanning more than 20 years. So, how good is/was Kimi Räikkönen? Has his form decreased over time? Let’s check out the Ice Man’s stats.

The two most notable points are his huge amount of race starts and his impressive 46 fastest laps (only Schumacher and Hamilton have more). Using my mathematical model, we can then gain information on how Räikkönen functioned as a driver by removing the effects of the car. Here’s what we get by comparing his yearly scores to several of his teammates.

Fig 1: Räikkönen’s yearly scores vs several teammates

The plot shows that Räikkönen is generally higher in ability than his teammates. This is partly a reflection of his ability, but is also perhaps due to good fortune, given that he had been in the sport for over a decade before facing a driver the model considers to be a true great. I obviously haven’t included every teammate here, but of the dozen drivers he faced only Vettel and Alonso are clearly ranked higher.

Fig 2: Räikkönen’s scores relative to his teammate, along with averages for Hamilton, Hülkenberg and Grosjean

Fig. 2 shows how Räikkönen’s score varies year-to-year. Given that an average season from Hamilton gives a score of 100, you can see that the model considers him a good driver, but well short of the absolute best, even at his peak. The graph also allows for an exploration of Räikkönen’s teammates, which have varied greatly in quality, from the competent (Coulthard and Grosjean) to the good (Montoya and Massa) to the great (Alonso and Vettel). Whilst Kimi’s low level may surprise some who saw his raw speed in the mid-2000s, it naturally comes from how he performed against these teammates. He was easily ahead of Coulthard, Grosjean and Montoya, had mixed results against Massa, and was typically behind the superstar drivers of Vettel and Alonso. It is probably no coincidence that most years people think of as Kimi’s best were also years in which his teammates were weakest, making him look better by comparison.

 

Beginning Years

2001, Sauber-Ferrari: 67%

2002, McLaren-Mercedes 53%

Fig 3: A fresh faced Räikkönen in his debut year

Sauber were so sure of Räikkönen’s potential that they signed him despite the fact that he’d only driven in 23 car races beforehand. He duly rewarded them with a point for sixth place in his opening race. His season overall was solid, with most of the praise accounting for his lack of experience and his maturity at the wheel rather than any spectacular results. When McLaren (then one of the 2 biggest teams) were looking to replace to retiring Mika Häkkinen, they overlooked their young driver (and Räikkönen’s teammate) Nick Heidfeld in favour of Räikkönen himself.

The 2002 McLaren was neither fast or reliable enough. Räikkönen had a poor year, retiring from over half of the races and finished below teammate Coulthard in the championship. However, four podiums and a fastest lap suggested that his potential was yet to be realised.

Championship challenges

2003, McLaren-Mercedes: 80%

2004, McLaren-Mercedes: 77%

2005, McLaren-Mercedes: 78%

2006, McLaren-Mercedes: 69%

2007, Ferrari: 77%

Fig 4: Räikkönen had plenty of wins, but too often his car let him down.

McLaren’s radical 2003 car never actually raced, but the adapted 2002 car that Räikkönen competed in was surprisingly competitive. He got his first win at the second race in Malaysia, and was initially declared the winner at the next race too before being demoted to second long after everyone had left the circuit. Kimi scored 10 podiums throughout the year, more than anyone else, and his consistency put him within a hair’s breadth of the title. The model considers this to be his best year.

The 2004 car suffered terrible reliability, but Räikkönen was at least able to take his second victory, this time at Spa. His performances were as good as ever despite the setback. In 2005 he faced a new teammate in Montoya. Both had strong reputations, but it was Räikkönen that came out on top in their years together. The 2005 McLaren was blindly fast, and Räikkönen won 7 races. His drive in Japan has become legendary, overtaking Fisichella for the lead on the last lap after starting down in 18th place. Unfortunately the title had already been decided by that point, as a slow start coupled with reliability issues thwarted his chances.

His final year at McLaren featured several podiums but no further victories. Many consider Kimi’s McLaren years to be his peak, which the model generally concurs with. Given that car reliability has been mentioned several times, it is worth investigating whether Räikkönen was unfortunate not to achieve more in this time period, particularly in 2003 and 2005 when he was in championship contention.

In 2007 he was hired by Ferrari to replace the retiring Michael Schumacher. He duly delivered on his first attempt, clinching the title at the final race, just 1 point ahead of title rivals Hamilton and Alonso. His second half of the season was particularly strong, coming back from over 20 points behind at the half-way point.

The model suggests that his peak years were 2003-2007 (see Fig 2. above), although the difference is not as big as one might expect given how high opinions were of him at the time. During this period he displayed a remarkable consistency year-to-year, despite having many teammates, moving teams and generally suffering from poor reliability. An often discussed hypothetical of this era is whether Kimi would have won more titles with a more reliable car, which is an idea I believe is worth exploring.



Did reliability cost Räikkönen world championships?

For this, I have looked at mechanical DNFs suffered by Räikkönen and his main championship challengers in the three years in which he challenged for the title (2003, 2005 and 2097) to see if discounting them would change the outcome. A score per counting race is then scaled up into a predicted final championship standing. Only car failures are taken into account here.

2003

In 2003, Räikkönen is the predicted world champion once reliability is taken out of the equation. Fascinatingly, world champion Schumacher is predicted to end up in 3rd place, emphasising how much this championship rested on fine margins. Schumacher had perfect reliability in 2003, and the only question mark in this scenario is how he would have performed in the final race. In reality, he finished an unimpressive 8th, securing the sole point he needed for the championship. Perhaps his race would have been different had Schumacher needed a stronger result.

2005

Discounting reliability in 2005 brings Räikkönen closer to Alonso, but still not close enough. However, there are a couple of other reliability factors to consider here. The first is that Kimi suffered two grid penalties due to engine problems during the season. He recovered onto the podium both times, from 13th and 12th places on the grid. Had these grid penalties now occurred a double victory for Räikkönen is quite possible, which would have caused a 10-point swing in Räikkönen’s favour (Räikkönen +6, Alonso -4). The second factor is the European GP, where Kimi retired from the lead on the final lap due to a tyre failure. I did not include this in my above analysis, for a variety of reasons, but it is worth mentioning as another variable in the equation. The prediction will therefore vary depending on what assumptions are made, but either way it looks like reliability issues caused us to miss out on a proper title showdown.

2007

His championship year also featured unreliability. Taking this into account, Räikkönen would have been much more comfortable in his victory, almost certainly sealing the title before the final race.

Conclusions

In conclusion, in all 3 years Räikkönen was negatively effected by reliability. These may well have made the difference in 2003, and possibly in 2005 as well. However, he suffered only 2 car related DNFs each year, which was pretty typical at the time. It is therefore perhaps more fair to say that Schumacher’s and Alonso’s reliability were as asset in 2003 and 2005 respectively. Räikkönen did suffer terrible reliability during his other McLaren years, but the car was also less competitive, so it would have made little difference on his ability to win the title.



Let’s get back to his career review:

Decline and 1st Retirement

2008, Ferrari: 63%

2009, Ferrari: 71%

Fig 5: Räikkönen winning the 2008 Malaysian Grand Prix.

Up until this point Räikkönen’s career had been an upwards curve, but his reputation was about a take a hit over his remaining stint for Ferrari. In 2008 and 2009 he was outraced and outpaced by Felipe Massa more often than not. Given that he was hired as their star lead driver, this was a big disappointment. Massa’s previous (and subsequent) performances suggest that he was a good, but not great driver, that Räikkönen was expected to consistently beat.

These two years did feature some highlights, including giving Ferrari their most recent constructors championship (to go along with their most recent drivers championship the year prior) and another win at Spa during a strong finish to 2009. The Spa victory was particularly impressive, given his teammate Badoar qualified and finished dead last at that race. However, Ferrari had lost faith that Räikkönen was capable of leading the time as he was hired to do, and he was replaced for 2010 by Fernando Alonso, despite having a contract in place. In the end Ferrari effectively paid him not to drive the car, and Räikkönen walked away from F1 after talks with McLaren and the newly formed Mercedes team broke down.

Lotus Return

2012, Lotus-Renault: 73%

2013, Lotus-Renault: 77%

Räikkönen returned to F1 with Lotus (the Enstone based team that currently race as Alpine) and was immediately competitive. He became known for his consistency, scoring points in every race except one in 2012. During his 2 year stint he won twice, with his victory at Abu Dhabi being most notable for the radio messages he gave to his engineer (“Leave me alone, I know what to do.”)

The model believes that Grosjean is not a particularly strong driver, and was especially weak in 2012 (effectively his rookie year), which may have made Räikkönen look better by comparison. Nevertheless, his strong results at Lotus earnt him a second chance at Ferrari, this time partnering Alonso rather than making way for him.

Ferrari Years pt. 2

2014, Ferrari: 70%

2015, Ferrari: 60%

2016, Ferrari: 76%

2017, Ferrari: 65%

2018, Ferrari: 71%

Fig 6: Räikkönen driving the 2015 Ferrari.

The thought of seeing Alonso and Räikkönen in the same car was tantalising to anyone who saw them duke it out in the mid-2000s. However, not only did the car lack pace, but the relationship was decidedly one-sided. Räikkönen scored a best result of 4th (at Spa, naturally) in a disappointing year. The model considers 2014 to be a below average year for Räikkönen, but it attributes most of the deficit to his teammate to be due to Alonso’s brilliance (see Fig. 2 and the sharp upwards spike in the score of Räikkönen’s teammate).

For 2015, Vettel replaced Alonso. The car improved from the disastrous 2014 campaign, and Kimi and Sebastian formed a good working relationship. They remained teammates for 4 years, and although Räikkönen was typically the weaker of the two drivers, Ferrari were happy with his performances. This demonstrates how his stock has been reconsidered over time. In his first Ferrari stint he was there to lead the team and replace Schumacher, a role which he was unable to fulfil (although it is questionable whether anyone could adequately step into Schumacher’s shoes). In his second stint he mainly acted as a support act to his superstar teammates, a role which the model considers much more appropriate given his yearly ratings.

Note that whilst Kimi’s scores fluctuate significantly in recent years, the model derives his score by comparing with his teammate. Vettel, for example, has not become known for his consistency, and this may explain some of the variation seen. Kimi’s final Ferrari year featured 12 podiums with a highly competitive car, including a victory in America. It was his first win in almost 6 years, setting the record for longest time between F1 victories at 113 races. Kimi also became the oldest winner since 1994.

Alfa Romeo

2019, Alfa Romeo-Ferrari : 67%

2020, Alfa Romeo-Ferrari: 61%

It looked like Kimi would be heading for retirement when Ferrari hired the promising LeClerc to replace him, but he surprised everyone by signing a 2 year deal with the newly formed Alfa Romeo team. When asked about his reasons for continuing with a midfield team, he simply said ” Because I want to.” If this ends up being his final team, it would be a fitting conclusion for him to end at the team he started at over 20 years ago (Alfa Romeo was originally Sauber).

Kimi had a strong first half of the year in 2019, consistently getting himself into the lower half of the points, but the car became less competitive as the season went on. In 2020 Alfa Romeo became backmarkers, but the evidence suggests that Kimi was still performing at a reasonable level. His first lap at Portugal was mesmerising, overtaking literally half the field in tricky conditions. Over the 2 years he has had a small edge on teammate Giovanazzi, whose ranking is still somewhat uncertain due to only being compared to Räikkönen.

Despite a 2 year gap in the middle of his career, Räikkönen has become the most experienced F1 driver ever, and he seems happy to keep going. Early evidence from 2021 suggests that the Alfa Romeo is still not particularly competitive, but the team know that Kimi is a safe pair of hands that will bring the car home.

Other Career Reviews:

Sergio Pérez

Sebastian Vettel

Daniel Ricciardo

Michael Schumacher

Jenson Button

Image Credits:
Fig 5: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kimi_Raikkonen_2008_Malaysia_3.jpg#/media/File:Kimi_Raikkonen_2008_Malaysia_3.jpg
Fig 6: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kimi_R%C3%A4ikk%C3%B6nen_qualifies_second_(21463936202).jpg#/media/File:Kimi_Räikkönen_qualifies_second_(21463936202).jpg

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