Sauber veteran hails ‘extraordinary’ talent of fastest F1 driver in team history – FormulaNerds.com
Alfa Romeo sporting director and longtime Sauber engineer Beat Zehnder hailed 2007 world champion Kimi Räikkönen as the team’s most talented driver.
The Finn may not have picked up his one and only driver’s title at Sauber, but the Swiss team gave him a shot in the sport, including his debut in 2001.
Zehnder, who has attended every team race since 1993, is well qualified to judge his driving staff, and the Sauber stalwart recently says the podcast ‘Beyond the Grid’ that Räikkönen is at the top of the pile.
“It was Kimi. In terms of pure talent, it’s definitely Kimi,” Zehnder said.
“He was extraordinary,” added the Swiss engineer. “And the way he looked at you: you felt like if you gave him a chance, he took it and made the most of it.”
From break to break
While Räikkönen went on to a stellar F1 career which saw him claim no less than 21 wins and 103 podiums, Zehnder revealed the Finn’s debut didn’t exactly have the most promising start.
In September 2000, a young Räikkönen was given the chance to test the Mugello side by his then-boss Peter Sauber, with the team looking for a replacement for departing Mika Salo.
However, when asked how impressive the Iceman was in those days, Zehnder replied “not very”.
“We did three or four laps and then he needed a 15-20 minute break,” Zehnder said. “But what do you expect from a Formula Renault driver?
In terms of pure pace though, Räikkönen was quick, edging out then-full F1 driver Pedro Diniz. In typical Kimi fashion, Zehnder said he responded by saying “I can do better”, but then he got an FIA super license, as well as a seat in Sauber’s team for the season. 2001.
That year, the inexperienced but fast Finn continued to impress, scoring four points and finishing in the top eight eight times.
With the retirement of two-time world champion Mika Häkkinen in 2001, this form caught the attention of McLaren, who sought to woo his compatriot as a replacement.
Although Zehnder claims the team tied its driver to a three-year contract, he explained that Raikkonen “made it clear that he would rather quit than continue”. [at Sauber.]”
“Either he goes to McLaren or he quits,” added Zehnder. “He said it clearly.”
The Return of Kimi and the Sauber Legacy
Raikkonen’s career then saw him race for McLaren, Lotus Renault and Ferrari, before returning to the now renamed Sauber team in 2019.
On his return, Zehnder explained that the Finn may not have been as fast as when he started, but he had developed a racing sense that set him apart from the rest.
“What he lost was his qualifying speed,” Zehnder said. “When he was young, he was one of the fastest qualifiers. It’s a question of age. At 42, curves come a little faster than at 20!
“For me he is one of the smartest runners,” he said. “He can read the races and knows exactly when to defend, when to attack and when it’s better to let someone pass.”
Given that Jean Alesi, Jacques Villeneuve, Felipe Massa, Robert Kubica, Sergio Pérez and Charles Leclerc have all raced for the Swiss outfit, Zehnder’s comments constitute praise from one of his longest servants.
Still, the Iceman’s final seasons weren’t always worthy of the career that preceded them, and he ended the 2021 season with just ten points, so what about the racing legacy and the future career of the Finn?
Kimi may not have finished on top, but he has caught the eye of stock car racing bosses recently, and Trackhouse Racing owner Justin Marks has would have backed him to make his NASCAR debut.
“From a speed, preparation and knowledge point of view, I think he will be on par,” Marks said. “Where the challenge will be making sure he understands racing from a procedural perspective, that he understands the rules.”
“I think he’s going to shoot ass,” he added.
Featured image credit: Formula 1.