It was quite exciting to see Kimi Räikkönen – sporting a mainly white crash helmet – back behind the wheel of a Formula 1 car today.
The Finn, who found himself shuffled out of F1 at the end of 2009 as Ferrari secured the services of Fernando Alonso, has spent two years in the grand prix wilderness, but is returning to the grid with Lotus GP this year.
This morning he had his first acclimatisation drive with the team, testing a 2010-specification R30 chassis at the Ricardo Tormo circuit in Valencia, Spain. So is this the start of a fairytale F1 comeback, or a desperate, last-gasp attempt by a past champion to rediscover his glory days?
One thing Kimi has on his side is time. It’s seems astonishing that he is only 32, until you remember that he started his F1 career at the age of 21, racing for Sauber.
He should also be relatively competition sharp, having taken part in one-and-a-bit seasons of World Rally Championship action, even if he might take some time to get used to Pirelli tyres and the adjustable rear wing for overtaking.
His switch to rallying was inconclusive yielding the occasional points finish but also some accidents. Kimi was probably as fast as he could have expected to be, given the caliber of driver he was up against and the alien concept of having a second competitor alongside him in the car, barking instructions.
His outings told us more about the specialised talent needed to win in the WRC than it did about Räikkönen’s talent or motivation.
As to whether he’ll be quick on his F1 return, it all depends which Kimi we’re going to see. Will we get the meteorically quick version who raced for McLaren in early to mid-2000s and then made a successful switch to Ferrari, where he claimed the 2007 world crown?
Or will 2012-spec Kimi be the less-than-convincing version who looked out-of-sorts for most of the 2009 season, bar the odd inspired performance?
We’ll find out more next month, when he’ll get the chance to drive the 2012 Lotus (albeit now without the trick reactive suspension system that has been declared illegal by the FIA).
If he senses some winning potential in the car, it could be all that’s needed to refire Kimi’s enthusiasm for the sport. After all, with five other former champions on the grid – Vettel, Button, Hamilton, Alonso and Schumacher –he’ll have to be right at the top of his game to succeed.