“These three ladies disliked and distrusted one another as heartily as the First Triumvirate of Rome, and their close alliance was probably for the same reason.”
~Margaret Mitchell – Gone with the Wind~
It was on this day in 2003 that Fernando Alonso first showed his future potential when he drove his under-powered Renault to a brilliant second place at his home Grand Prix in Spain, splitting the two much faster Ferrari’s of Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello.
Championship leader Kimi Raikkonen had placed his car in the kitty-litter, his single qualifying lap in tatters, and after extricating it limped home. He started the race from last on the grid and when the lights changed proceeded to crash into a stalled Jaguar directly in front of him, his race over before he had moved 10 meters.
James Allen said that in 2002 “I remember asking Michael privately who he thought his greatest threat was going to come from. He said it was not Montoya, nor was it Kimi Raikkonen. Instead it was Alonso, who at that time was a Renault test driver. He’d seen enough of him from testing and in his 2001 F1 season with Minardi to know that Alonso would be the one to take his crown, just as Ayrton Senna immediately identified Schumacher in 1992 as the one.”
But is this really true? The above statement is from James Allen’s book “Michael Schumacher – The Edge of Greatness” which was published in 2008. By then a lot of water had gone under the bridge of the relationships between Schumacher, Raikkonen and Alonso. In 2007 Ferrari’s hiring of Kimi Raikkonen had possibly pushed Schumacher out of Ferrari a year or two before he would otherwise have chosen to leave. Raikkonen then proceeded to win the World Championship that year, and maybe Schumacher thought that that last championship should have been his for the taking.
The reason for doubting the timing of this statement is that in 2002 Alonso had done little to prove his supremacy over Raikkonen, even if his superiority seems more obvious now. Alonso had driven for Minardi in 2001 and then had to settle for being a test driver for Renault in 2002. By the time of the Spanish Grand Prix in 2003, he had managed two podium finishes, but this would be the first race where he would finish in front of Raikkonen, though not because he had proved his superior talent in a head to head battle, as Raikkonen never got his car off the main straight.
On the eve of the 2003 season when he was questioned by a reporter if Juan Pablo Montoya was his biggest threat, Michael Schumacher said, “I would not focus on that single person. My team-mate Rubens Barrichello has picked up his game quite a lot. Then there is my brother Ralf, and Kimi Raikkonen. I would mention all of these in the same bracket as Montoya. But the media seems to have picked out one over the others.”
For the 2002 season, Raikkonen had managed to disentangle himself from a four-year contract driving for Sauber when he was offered the departing Mika Hakkinen’s seat at McLaren. That year his car had major mechanical difficulties, usually related to engine reliability, resulting in DNF’s for 10 of the 17 races, as well as one crash in the rain. He finished in the points in every other race. The French Grand Prix would have given him his maiden win had he not when under pressure from Schumacher directly behind him put two wheels onto the grass which allowed Schumacher the opportunity he needed to get past him.
Raikkonen had continued his good form in 2003 and had been on the podium for all of the first four races before arriving in Spain where he had his first DNF. He finished the 2003 season two points shy of Schumacher who got his fifth World Championship. At the end of 2003 the jury was still out as to who would get the most glory in Formula One – Alonso or Raikkonen.
When Alonso became World Champion in 2005 he had broken all the “youngest-ever” titles: first pole position at 21, first win at 22, and first world title at 24. Alonso was completely focused, completely dedicated to the job of becoming the best in Formula One. He looked like he was set to beat all Schumacher’s records, but life isn’t always a fairy tale. He then went to McLaren, showing his ambition when he was unable to cope with an unexpectedly challenging teammate in rookie, Lewis Hamilton. His next step was Ferrari, pushing out Raikkonen who still had a year of his contract to run but had failed to achieve the top result in 2008 and 2009. Alonso fully expected to get more World Championship titles, but in Formula One you have to drive the car you have, not the car you want.
Kimi Raikkonen lived to drive but was a less driven personality than Alonso. In the early part of his career he was faced with an unreliable car and had to come to terms with the fact early that even if you drove well, your car may not finish the race. He lost out on the World Championship to Michael Schumacher by an incredibly narrow margin in 2003. If he had won he would also have been 24 – the same age as Alonso when he won his world championship. But he had to wait far longer than Alonso for the ultimate success, not winning the World Championship title until 2007, but in doing so had to be mentally strong, winning three of the last four races in the season against a disintegrating Fernando Alonso and the up-coming young rookie Lewis Hamilton.
It is never easy to compare two drivers, even in the same era, and not even in the same car. Drivers have different strengths and weaknesses and these are more apparent at some times than in others. Alonso has always been the more focused of the two, his will to win supreme, his whole life revolving around making sure he is at peak mental and physical condition, his driving studied and precise. Raikkonen has always been more relaxed with his driving more instinctual than intellectual. His joy is in driving with winning less essential to his enjoyment of the sport and his view of success.
There had been great hopes for 2014 that we would finally see these two brilliant though completely different drivers compete against each other in the same machinery but so far we have been disappointed. We can only hope that Ferrari can provide Raikkonen with a car in which he will be able to show what he is capable of and we will finally get to see these two drivers battle it out for supremacy.
(This was written in 2014…)