Why having Kimi Raikkonen at Red Bull could end lingering doubts about Sebastian Vettel
As the rumour mill continues to swirl, Sky Sports F1's Mark Hughes explains why signing Raikkonen could work for both Red Bull and their triple World Champion
By Mark Hughes. Last Updated: 09/07/13 10:14am
In the immediate post-race glow of victory, Sebastian Vettel was asked about the idea of having as a team-mate the man he had just spent the last few laps fending off, Kimi Raikkonen.
"Well, I wouldn't mind," he replied.
So far, so platitudinous; the sort of bland non-committal response that doesn't invite further scrutiny either way. But then Seb chose to expand. "To be completely straight it's not my decision. I have a good relationship [with Red Bull] and we spoke about that. But not in detail yet. I think the team has no pressure on anything; at least that's what they communicated with me. I think I get along fairly well with Kimi; we never had a problem on track, even if one day we might have and crash into each other - which can happen. But then I think we'd deal with it as grown-ups and sort it out and talk about it among ourselves. At least I think that's the relationship I have with him. I respect him a lot, on and off the track. But, as I said, it's not my decision."
No-one at Red Bull makes any secret of the fact that Mark Webber's 2014 replacement will be either Raikkonen or one of the current Toro Rosso drivers. There are two obvious concerns about taking Kimi. One is that it would de-value Red Bull's junior driver programme, given that both Daniel Ricciardo and Jean-Eric Vergne have performed well in their roles. The other is the possibility of someone of Kimi's calibre threatening the equilibrium of a team that is based around Vettel, their triple - currently on-target for quadruple - World Champion.
Team boss Christian Horner, owner Dietrich Mateschitz and junior driver director Helmut Marko will between them make the choice and of the three it would be Marko who might be expected to be pushing hardest for one of the Toro Rosso guys rather than Raikkonen. But even he is realistic about the choice facing them. He acknowledges that there can be no compromise on performance when talking of a team for which world titles are expected.
Ricciardo, in particular, is performing well at the moment but well enough to convince Marko that he would be a no-risk option? Someone who would push Vettel hard and be ready to instantly and consistently deliver wins and podiums? The feeling from within is that there is still not enough evidence of that. The decision is set to be made 'at the end of the summer' which, at best, gives Ricciardo three races in which to make an irresistible rock solid case for himself. Is that even possible?
Furthermore, signing Raikkonen for Red Bull for 2014 would not necessarily mean the end of Red Bull Racing aspirations for the Toro Rosso drivers. Should one of them put together a stunning 2014 campaign, and Kimi is signed for only one year...
In terms of the equilibrium of the team, Raikkonen's low-wattage personality is actually likely to be lower maintenance than that of the combative Mark Webber. Mark - like Seb - is someone who seeks to maximise everything at his disposal out of the car as well as in. Raikkonen is unusual, maybe even unique, among top drivers in wanting only for the car to be competitive. Ferrari was amazed at how easy and undemanding he was of them; in fact their problem with him was they didn't feel he was demanding enough. The very reason he was unsuitable as a Ferrari team leader might make him the ideal Red Bull Vettel team-mate.
If he was to be signed, the intrigue of how he might compare to Vettel would be intense. There is a small but insistent element within the F1 community - drivers included - that insists Vettel is merely a good driver in fantastic equipment. Ironically, Raikkonen's standing within the paddock is probably higher than Vettel's. This might be the very reason Vettel would relish being partnered with him. If he were to go up against someone of Kimi's standing and emerge on top, it would obliterate any doubts about his level.
What he delivered at the Nurburgring on Sunday was a drive that ranks up with any from history. The Red Bull was simply not as fast in race conditions as the Lotus. It lacked the E21's slow-corner grip and fast-corner balance. If either Romain Grosjean or Raikkonen could have got past they would have pulled comfortably away.
Obviously, the Red Bull was a quicker car in qualifying and still very good in the race, but keeping it in front of a car that needed just the smallest chink of daylight in his defences for the whole race was quite remarkable. The mental demands of that are extraordinarily high and he combines this with a natural qualifying pace that is devastating.
The world might finally accept that in fullness if Kimi Raikkonen were to become a Red Bull driver in 2014.