Monaco is a hard nut to crack. Just ask the drivers who have faced the challenge of racing on the streets of the Principality. You will have heard them say many times that the barriers are unforgiving, and this is the truth. The tiniest mistake is enough to hit the wall. Imagine how difficult it is for a driver who has not had the chance to drive there in the junior categories to have their first experience of Monaco in an F1 car.
Kimi arrived at Monaco in just that situation in 2001, unlike most other F1 drivers. His teammate, Nick Heidfeld, raced there in F3, F3000 and in F1 with the Prost GP team a year earlier. So he knew his way around. The bottom line is that Kimi had to get to know the track. And quickly.
There was only one way to find out. His Sauber race engineer, Jacky Eeckelaert, told this blog: “I did a few laps with Kimi on a scooter to show where to put the wheels and where not, but this was when the road was open to traffic, and there was a traffic jam everywhere, and by that it was not possible to have a clean look at the racing lines”.
But on Thursday, Raikkonen had to face Monaco circuit for the first time during the busy free practice sessions. He was informed by Jacky that the grip would be very low, and that he should have kept the car away from the barriers and take it easy.
“The laptime evolution due to the track improvement as the rubber is laid down is bigger than what you can achieve by any setup changes and driving”, Jacky explains.
So Raikkonen had to learn his way around the track, adjust tire pressure, brake blanking, engine blanking, ride high settings at top speed and the “usual stuff” teams did in that period. Things moved on since then and drivers are running more complicated programmes these days.
“I also told him, the day before on the scooter, that the tunnel corner was flat out (full throttle, no lift, no braking)”, remembers Eeckelaert.
After Kimi’s first run he returned to the pits and reported that “everything felt normal”. “Then he asked me if I was sure that the tunnel corner was flat. My answer was ‘yes’”, adds Jacky. Trying to keep an F1 car with 850bhp flat out in a tunnel that you saw first time is not easy. Watch on television and it looks simple. But stand trackside in the tunnel as the cars blast through the right-hander and you see just how much they move around on the bumps.
The engineers made a few adjustments on the tyre pressures and after having a quick look in the telemetry data, Kimi climbed on the car to have his second run. The people on the pitwall were surprised seen the Finn taking the tunnel corner flat out on the out lap.
“That’s what I call having confidence in your race engineer and even more in your own ability as a racing driver”, reflects Eeckelaert. But he couldn’t do more than that because he ran into brake calliper problems and the session was over for him since repair took a while.”
Qualifying time and Kimi managed to get P15, outqualifying Heidfeld by 0.180 secs. So he started his first ever race in Monaco ahead of his teammate, an impressive achievement. But the race did not go as planned.
After 25 laps Kimi reported an issue with the engine. It was misfiring, so he had to pit. The Finn climbed out of the car and along with his engineers they checked the data. A faulty wheelspeed sensor “thought” that there was lots of wheel spin and cut the engine power down. Remember, this was in the days when traction control was legal.
“I told Kimi that changing it takes a lot of time, but what I proposed was just to get back in the car. I disconnected the traction control system and then he could do another 40 laps till the end of the race, just gaining experience for next year”, adds Jacky. But Kimi was already 4 laps down.
“Obviously I warned Kimi that without traction control the risk of going off is huge, as the V10 ignition maps were not smoothed out as is done nowadays were Traction Control (TC) is not allowed anymore, and therefore without TC the engine is very aggressive. ‘OK’ he replied and went out”
He made no errors and he finished the race in last position. Drivers like H.H.Frentzen (Jordan), J.P.Montoya (Williams) and N.Heidfeld (Sauber) didn’t finish the race after suffering damage. But look at the fastest laps of the race and Kimi’s name appears on on the 6th spot with the fastest time on Lap 60 … without traction control!
Definitely a man on a mission!