Last time we spoke about Kimi Raikkonen, we had a great chat with his race engineer during his first Formula 1 season with Sauber, Jacky Eeckelaert. This time, we wanted to know more about how things progressed from the first test through to his first race. So we knocked on Jacky’s door again.
“After the first test with Kimi, we had another test,” explains Jacky. “At that time, Red Bull was sponsor to Sauber and Dietrich Mateschitz pushed the team to sign Enrique Bernoldi. Bernoldi was a very fast driver but I saw in Kimi not only speed but also determination. I thought Kimi would be a better addition that Bernoldi. So we did another test at Mugello with Kimi and Bernoldi. Although there were similar in lap times, I asked from them to do some stints of 10 timed laps and you could there some difference already. Enrique started to be inconsistent after some laps while with Kimi, it was not the case. He was running like a clock. After that it was clear which driver to pick up.”
After the team decided to pick up Kimi, the plan was to get him in the car for plenty of mileage.
“In order to win in F1, it’s not about driving for 20 or 30 mins,” explains Eeckelaert. “It’s not like karting or Formula Renault, an F1 race last an hour-and-a-half at least. At that time, we had refueling so the idea was to have him prepared to do 20 or so laps until the pitstop. That’s where we had to focus on during the winter. To keep working on this 20 laps idea.”
So during the winter, Kimi undertook an intensive training programme in order to reach the fitness level of an F1 driver. During that period, he once again showed his determination. The team gave him a programme and in the evaluation it was obvious that he had made at least the double that was required from him.
During testing in January, Kimi impressed the team once again, as Jacky explains.
“The testing days were completely at 5 o’clock in the afternoon and there were times when we completed the schedule 45 mins earlier than that,” he says. “The vast majority of the drivers returned to the motorhomes doing other activities, but it wasn’t the same with Kimi. He came and asked ‘can I do another long run?’ Physically, he became strong in a very small time. He learned a lot of things and all he was interested in winning.”
Kimi Raikkonen’s first F1 race was the 2001 Australian GP in Melbourne. In his first qualifying session he managed to take 13th spot, with his teammate Nick Heidfeld starting only three places further up. It was a good start.
The pitlane was about to open for the race and teams had 15 mins to send the cars out to take their positions to the grid. Barely 5 mins before this, the team looked for Kimi who wasn’t to be found in the garage.
“It was 5 mins to go until the pitlane went green and Kimi wasn’t in the garage,” says Eeckelaert. “He was nowhere to be found! So we went looking for him in the motorhome and we found him sleeping. That was his way of relaxing, even in his first even F1 race! ‘What? Is it now already? I’m coming, I’m coming’, I remember were his words. He had everything completely under control.”
“Before the race, I advised him to keep pushing up to the last lap. Even if you are out of the points, it’s very important to keep pushing. Because after the race we take the car apart and we are doing the checks, so that we know what part has problems or which needs a redesign. We have to keep the car under constant pressure to ensure all goes smooth for the next race. Because if it breaks with couple of laps left, then parts have to be redesigned”
In his first race, Kimi finished seventh, behind Heinz-Harald Frentzen, but a 25-second penalty was applied to Olivier Panis and Jos Verstappen for overtaking under the yellow flag. Panis finished ahead, in fourth place, so the Finn was promoted to sixth place. He had become one of the few drivers to score a point on his grand prix debut.
“All this because he pushed up to the last lap and he close enough to get ahead after the penalty was applied.
“I asked him after the race ‘what do you think? Your first ever GP and in the points?’, and he looked to me without any expression in his face and replied ‘another 5 to beat’”, concludes Jacky.