I was probably 15 when I first heard of Kimi-Matias Räikkönen. I couldn’t tell you I was definitely 15 because F1 Racing was the kind of magazine that acted as part high-quality reporting, part UK tabloid fluff; you could read a diary of Peter Windsor from his time as Nigel Mansell’s manager at Williams one page and fawning blurbs on otherwise anonymous child karting stars the next. Sure, I learned about Lewis Hamilton when he was1 12. I also learned about Timo Scheider. That’s what happens when print magazines have pages to fill. Or had, rather.
All of which is to say that Räikkönen was already on my radar, but only just, by the time Peter Sauber gave him his formal Formula 1 debut in a Sauber test in September 2000. The big thing that autumn was the controversy, once his name came up in the pool of potential Sauber candidates for 2001, surrounding the approval of his FIA Super Licence, which was necessary in order to race in F1 but called into question on the grounds that the Finn had only raced in 23 international events prior to his test, none higher than Formula Renault. Don’t feel bad: Even longtime fans couldn’t tell you what that last bit means anymore.
Which was exactly the point of objection. How and why it hastily went through so Kimi could be granted the license, signed to Sauber as Nick Heidfeld’s teammate and put on the grid for the 2001 Australian Grand Prix, I’ll never know — but even at this remove, I can assure you it had everything to do with higher powers at Mercedes-Benz (who’d established a relationship with Peter Sauber in the ‘80s via the sportscar program that brought Michael Schumacher into F1) and Ferrari (who were supplying Petronas-badged engines to Sauber at the time), both of whom were vying for the rights to Räikkönen’s future before he’d ever turned a wheel in anger. The raw pace was obvious from the first test, his resemblance to the soon-to-be-retiring Mika Häkkinen obvious. The question was what he could do over a full season.
The record books tell me he scored a point on his debut and finished 10th overall at year’s end. I have no recollection of this. For years, my parents’ cable company had seemingly been at war with me personally over my ability to watch F1 live. After a steady stint with ESPN, then ESPN2 for a year, American broadcasting rights were sold off to Fox because ESPN couldn’t (wouldn’t) pay. Fox put it on its regional sports offshoot, then moved it to Speedvision once it bought that channel, which turned into Speed Network. If that sounds like a fucking headache to you now, with all the streaming options and ways of keeping up with races in real time available to you, imagine how cursed my adolescent F1 fandom must’ve felt. Even at this remove, I can assure you it did not feel good. So it’s entirely possible Kimi’s debut was one of the races I missed in transition.
I’m shrugging as I say this: I probably missed most of that season, in fact. In the second year of Michael Schumacher and Ferrari anno domination, I could feel my fandom beginning to slip.
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I’ve been here about a month and a half and it’s been about a month since I had $22 in my bank account. I’m at a temp job worried about making half the rent in an apartment not far from Loyola, so I’m practically in a suburb. I barely know where anything is outside The Loop. I have no idea where I’ll be at the end of the lease, let alone if I’ll stay in Chicago for the long run. I don’t really know what I’m doing, is what I’m saying, and I have no idea how to have fun here yet, but this is the climax to an incredible year for Formula 1, a year where I finally saw my first race in person, Lewis Hamilton’s win a historic race right in the moment, and I decide I’m not going to download this one via torrent and watch it on a delay. I will watch it live, in person, with other people, somewhere. It’s a Sunday in October and the Bears are already 2-4; surely there’s one bar in the city that’d be willing to spare me a TV for a couple of hours early in the afternoon?
Yelp isn’t really a thing yet and I know Chicago isn’t exactly a town wild about cars, so I have to do some digging around on motorsports messageboards to find a single place that regularly broadcasts F1 when races are on during business hours. Finally, a name: Players Bar & Grill, 2500 North Ashland. I tell Tiffany I’m heading down to watch this race because it gets me out of the apartment for a little bit and because I have a $75 unlimited CTA pass I may as well use. It takes at least an hour to get there.
Between Hamilton, Fernando Alonso and Räikkönen, I decide on the way down that I don’t really have a favorite. Each driver is clearly deserving for different reasons and I’m mostly just excited to see Michael Schumacher has nothing to do with this decider for the first time in years. But as I pull slowly from a Guinness as the race gets underway, I start feeling a pull within: I’ve never been a Ferrari fan, but wouldn’t it be cool to finally see Räikkönen win a title after years of being robbed at McLaren? I think of the races that slipped away, of the two championships in 2003 and ‘05 he really probably should’ve won. The guy deserves it even if he’s the longest shot of the three.
Over the next hour and a half, McLaren’s post-Hungary drama climaxes with a disastrous race for Hamilton and a very average one from Alonso. Räikkönen cruises home to victory and, improbably, the driver’s championship. I watched in silence with maybe four other people. What a finish. How could you top a three-way fight ending in some cosmic justice like that?
Shrugs all around. When it was over, I paid my tab of two Guinnesses, thanked the bartender and walked out, back to the bus and the train and the rest of my life where Formula 1 meant absolutely nothing to anyone and where, at some indeterminate point shortly thereafter, I realized I’d walked out on my fandom for it then, too.
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It’s a golden Sunday evening in early October and I’m getting into the back of a cab with two strangers somewhere in Kent. I’ve spent most of my day watching motorcycles and avoiding a Polish guy I met on the train down from London who regaled me with stories of primitive Eastern European races, followed me to the track and then told me to hang on while he went to negotiate scalped tickets behind a van a little too long for my liking in the parking fields outside the circuit that morning. Now I’m just trying to get back to the train that’ll take me out of wherever the hell Brands Hatch actually is and drop me into the only city in this country I’m actually familiar with.
As an American, naturally, I draw the curiosity of these middle-aged English guys. We talk a little about the day’s races, about racing in general, so they understand my knowledge base and I know I’m not riding with a couple of murderers. The one at the opposite window asks his friend passingly at one point if we’ve heard about the Japanese Grand Prix; though I know exactly what he’s asking about, of course I have nothing to offer. Suzuka is eight hours ahead of Brands Hatch, I’ve been wandering trackside all day and smartphones haven’t been invented yet, so I have no idea what’s going on in the world.
“Räikkönen won it,” he offers nonchalantly. “Back of the grid.” The friend nods approvingly, but my eyes go wide. “Really? From the back? How?” I’m asking rhetorically; he only knows the result, must’ve seen it in a hospitality tent or heard from a friend. We’re all clueless. But even at this remove, I can assure you my mind was running back through all the races I’d seen from there: Suzuka isn’t the world’s friendliest place for passing. You get a shot diving up the inside at the first turn, maybe one coming into the hairpin, an opportunity coming down the back straight out of Spoon Curve if you get a really good run and a slipstream off the car ahead, a last gasp into the final chicane. It’s not impossible to make up ground, but at the sharp end of the Formula 1 grid in 2005, you’re not making up many places, certainly not enough to win a grand prix from the back. How could the rest of the field have let this happen?
When I got back to the dorm, I checked the results on one of the computers in the commons just to be sure, probably on Crash.net, the easiest one-stop shop for all my racing news (both then and now). Lo, there it was: Räikkönen first from 17th on the grid, 1.633 seconds ahead of Giancarlo Fisichella.
I’ve long had a soft spot for racers who were quicker than they knew what to do with. This drove home the point I believed (both then and now) that were it not for an unreliable MP4-20, Kimi would’ve been champ that year. Maybe this gentle grudge is why I never really warmed up to Alonso.
Late one night years later, long after YouTube had filled up with bygone F1 races I didn’t have to torrent or stream illegally but never bothered to watch despite that because I just didn’t care that much, I returned to a full broadcast of the 2005 Japanese Grand Prix, just to see how he did it. Watching that race is exactly the kind of slowly unfolding origami note no amount of pre-race hype or Netflix soap opera treatments can fully explain; you literally just have to watch it not knowing anything between the time the lights go out and the time the checkered flag falls.
When the grace note to Fisichella finally, finally hits, you can hardly believe your eyes. I pull it up and watch again every so often just to feel the rush of it, James Allen’s fevered shouts struggling to keep up with the brilliance unfolding to its final form on track. This is how I choose to remember Kimi Räikkönen, and how anyone who was a fan of him might, too — not the blessed boy at Sauber or his championship year at Ferrari or the rallying or the NASCAR or the Lotus overachieving or his second-fiddle second stint back at Maranello or whatever the fuck he’s been doing tooling around with Alfa Romeo the past few years2, but the surreal car control, the sublime speed, ice dancing in the Silver Arrows of his youth, making it all look too easy too soon. At his best, Kimi eclipsed a generation with a shrug. Those were his McLaren years, the ones the record books hide.
You don’t know why you’re drawn to him and he couldn’t tell you why he could do it, you just are and he just did. Forever inscrutable, just beyond the realm of your understanding, barely earthbound and providential. A man in a beautiful bullet, shrugging.
1 (we were)
2 Truly, I do not care.