Kimi Raikkonen is on the verge of signing a deal to return to F1 with Williams.
The 2007 world champion has been in discussions with the team for several weeks, following a recent visit to the factory in Grove. Sources suggest that discussions are going the right way and they are now close to a deal.
It is understood that the Finn, who will be 32 next month, is keen to get back into F1 competition after two years on the sidelines in rallying. The timing is significant as Williams are on the look out for a bold move to boost the team and Raikkonen can see that the F1 driver landscape is likely to change a lot at the end of 2012 and a strong season, reminding everyone what he can do, might open some doors.
Michael Schumacher’s comeback is both a positive example, but also a warning to the Finn as it took the seven times champion some time to get up to speed. Raikkonen has kept sharp by competing in world rally for the past two seasons, but at the same time he will take a while to get fully up to speed with the Pirelli F1 tyres. All his rivals will have a year’s experience on them.
From Williams’ point of view, team boss Adam Parr will want to make a bold move after a season to forget in 2011. He has hired a new technical team, led by Mike Coughlan, with Dr Mark Gillan (who is here in Singapore) in charge of race operations and Jason Sommerville as chief aerodynamicist. His other options are to retain Rubens Barrichello, hire a known quantity like Heikki Kovalainen or go for a rookie alongside Pastor Maldonado. Or he could wait to see whether a Robert Kubica comeback might dislodge Bruno Senna from Renault. Rumours of a connection with Adrian Sutil have been firmly denied on both sides.
One thing is for sure, Williams are likely to finish 9th in the Constructors’ Championship this year and that will mean a shortfall in prize money and sponsor bonus money.
However most major sponsor contracts have a clause where they pay more if a world champion comes to the team and that may be another factor to encourage the Raikkonen move, particularly if his wage demands are reasonable.
Hiring Raikkonen would be a very bold statement from Williams as he is a world champion and an 18 times race winner. He certainly has the speed and the skills to compete with the best in F1, will certainly get some eye catching results and his name might also help attract a sponsor or two, although he is not known for being keen on promotional appearances. For F1 it would mean that there would be 6 world champions in the field of 24 drivers, which has never happened before in its 61 year history. The feeling in the paddock is that it would be a good thing, if it happens.
The possible question mark with Raikkonen is motivation; he seemed to have run out of motivation in his final season with Ferrari in 2009 and driving what is likely to be a midfield car, even if it is a regular points challenger, he will be seeking to prove a point rather than win races.
One key relationship he will not have to develop from scratch is with new Williams technical director Mike Coughlan, who worked with the Finn at McLaren from 2002 until his move to Ferrari in 2006. They know each other well.