Raikkonen trying Lotus' patience
Sky Sports F1's Commentary Expert Mark Hughes on how Kimi Raikkonen tried the patience of the Lotus team in Monaco and and why the onus is on Kimi to break the impasse...
By Mark Hughes. Last Updated: 29/05/12 3:22pm
Kimi Raikkonen tried the Lotus team's patience with his performance over the Monaco Grand Prix weekend. It's the first time the new relationship has been seriously tested and where it goes from here is largely in Kimi's hands.
The Enstone team that was celebrating its 500th Grand Prix over the weekend - which includes its guises badged as Benetton, Renault and now Lotus - has always been a fabulously simple, down-to-earth operation, with a well-matched bunch of minimum-fuss racers at the core even as the management has changed around it.
The management has always just secured the funds, hired the drivers and given the race team a budget to work to - and has not got itself involved in the actual operation of the racing. So long as there are such low-key, capable, experienced, competitive personnel in the key roles as at Enstone, it works brilliantly well.
It's a very different system to those seen at, say, McLaren or Ferrari. The engineers on the race team at Enstone have always had more autonomy, with defined roles less specialised and more flexible than at other major teams. There is a natural hierarchy there that is totally respected and with everyone pulling their weight and contributing to the whole, there is a fantastic atmosphere.
The drivers that have flourished there - Michael Schumacher, Fernando Alonso, Robert Kubica - have fitted in perfectly with that ethic: racing obsessives with little interest in the peripheral bulls**t that comes with fame, who would choose to spend hours in the garage immersed in the team, talking about the car, and how to make it go faster, even after the official debriefs had finished. Why go to a party when you could hang around the engineering room or the garage?
Another ideal quality for a classic Enstone driver is a lack of emotional drama - there will be precious little arm-around-the-shoulder stuff here for any driver of that disposition. Alonso found this on the few occasions he let that Latin temperament come to the surface, hence his comments in Japan '06 of how he felt alone in the team in the wake of the Chinese Grand Prix the previous week when he found himself having to race his team-mate Giancarlo Fisichella.
Usually, Alonso's performance dominance over his team-mates kept him on an emotional even keel. But that was invariably upset whenever there was an in-team challenge. His angry screaming over the radio at Indianapolis '06 when Fisichella was running ahead of him was another such example, signed off with a sarcastic, 'I hope you enjoy Fisi's podium,' at the end.
Such stuff would be met with shrugged shouldered indifference by the guys on the team there. They loved Alonso, and his occasional outbursts were just part of him that they could easily shrug off - but were never going to indulge. They loved him because he clearly worked just as hard as them, was just as obsessively competitive as them - and because he was relentlessly on it every time he got in the car. That was true from 2003-06. The driver they found in the less competitive car of 2008-09, they were not so enamoured with, but let's not digress.
Kimi Raikkonen's low-wattage, totally unpretentious personality fits in perfectly at Enstone and he was an instant easy fit there; fantastically gifted but no histrionics. He is not as obsessive about the car as Schumacher, Alonso or Kubica, does not want to hang around at the track forever once he's been downloaded in the official debriefs.
But that's fine, the team don't mind that - they can shrug it off just as easily as they could Alonso's occasional outbursts. Where he might fall down in his relationship with the team would be if they sense he is not giving as much as they are - and his Monaco weekend was not an encouraging sign.
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Kimi's driving style requires plenty of steering feedback. He's very adaptive to changes in grip, has a great instinctual feel for where it is as the track changes and the tyres degrade. But that feedback to the wheel in these days of power steering - necessary because of the high degree of camber thrust teams use to speed up the initial turn of the car - is not always an easy thing to deliver, and for much of the season so far Raikkonen has kept the team busy designing and making new components in the search for the feedback he wants. Coming into the Monaco weekend - the track with the tightest corners on the calendar and therefore the one requiring the greatest amount of steering lock - Kimi had further requested a high-ratio steering system, giving greater lock for a given degree of steering wheel input.
The Enstone guys readily agreed, even though designing and manufacturing such a system is a time-consuming business. It drained factory engineering effort away from a lot of other projects for around three weeks. As has been well-reported, Kimi made a single out-lap in Thursday morning practice at Monaco, came in, declared that the car was undriveable with this steering, almost totally devoid of feedback.
Re-fitting the conventional system is a 1.5-hour job and he was asked to consider running the session with it as it was, so that the standard system could be fitted in between sessions. He refused and took no further part in that session - the only one in which extended dry track running could have been made, as it turned out. With the afternoon session rained out, the team was sorely bereft of useful tyre data.
Producing a power steering system that combines good feedback with a high ratio is an exceptionally difficult thing to do. To give good feel, the steering must lighten noticeably as the grip reduces and weigh-up again as it increases. It must do this almost instantaneously. But that varying load has to be transferred from various torsion bars, through the medium of hydraulic fluid working on hydraulic rams. There is an inevitable inertia in the system - and the higher the steering ratio, the less finely-honed those varying degrees of resistance can be. Kimi felt that to continue the session around the streets of Monaco with the steering so dead-feeling was to invite hitting the wall.
The lack of dry running was almost certainly a contributory factor in a qualifying performance from Kimi that one senior team engineer described as 'poor'. His lack of pace in the race came largely from the early deterioration of the rear tyres in a car that is usually among the very gentlest on the rubber - and that almost certainly came from the set-up arrived at amid a lack of extended dry running on Thursday. The team was less than impressed.
Jarno Trulli used to have a hard time getting the engineers on side at this team, partly because he was so particular with his requests about the steering system he needed. When they looked across to the other side of the garage and saw that Alonso was going quickly regardless, they tended not to take Jarno's requests for a highly resource-intensive change too seriously.
Kimi's pre-occupation with his steering is reminding them all too much of their time with Trulli and this time, when they look to the other side of the garage, Romain Grosjean is going very quickly with whatever steering he's given. But they have very different driving styles, and Grosjean's - just like Alonso's before him - is not particularly sensitive to steering feedback.
The team guys feel they have done all they can to accommodate Kimi's requests - and if what results is still not to his taste, then it's really down to him to adapt himself. Kimi feels he cannot do his best work without a steering system that allows him to feel the car in the way he needs to. It's a classic racing impasse.
But it's now down to Raikkonen either to more fully explain what he needs, to spend time with the engineers, immerse himself in solving the problem - or to just live with it and buckle down to adapting himself. Shrugging his shoulders and saying, "No, that's no good," and walking away after the team had worked endless hours trying to give him what he's asked for, really did not go down well at all.