What next for Raikkonen after his NASCAR Cup debut?
Will Kimi Raikkonen’s appetite have been sufficiently whetted by his first taste of the NASCAR Cup Series to come back for more? That’s the million dollar question.
Over the years, this writer has covered ex-Formula 1 stars Mika Hakkinen, Jean Alesi, Heinz-Harald Frentzen and David Coulthard in the DTM and the likes of Nigel Mansell, Gianni Morbidelli, Derek Warwick and Johnny Herbert in the British Touring Car Championship. So why does a driver, who’s performed well and achieved great things at the very pinnacle of motorsport, feel the need to put a roof over their head?
From a primitive perspective, the loss of white-hot competition is surely a strong motivator in each case, as is a reduction of income (albeit let’s assume they not exactly living on the breadline) and an ego-driven requirement to remain in the limelight to display their talents.
And while spending more time with family after a demanding, time-consuming career is desirable, after a while it’s understandable that drivers relish the prospect of getting back to having some fun with some like-minded mates on the track. As much as racing drivers would like you to believe they’re multi-faceted, amazingly cultured individuals, experience suggests they’re not all quite as multi-dimensional as they’d wish you believe. But they absolutely crave competition, and once you’ve tasted a contest at the rarefied level then that tooth-and-claw battle is a tough one to walk away from completely.
When NASCAR Cup Series outfit Trackhouse Racing first launched its Project 91 initiative and its intentions to attract a top international star, Autosport journalists picked out who they’d like to see in the hot seat. “Kimi Raikkonen has raced in NASCAR Trucks and Xfinity before, and he must be getting bored now,” I wrote. And lo, it came to pass.
Prior to Watkins Glen on Sunday, Raikkonen hadn’t started a motor race since the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, the last of his 349 F1 starts. His glittering career is crowned by the 2007 world championship, along with 21 grand prix wins and over 100 F1 podiums.
In the 251 days since, a man who’s raced almost 100,000km in an F1 car hadn’t driven a racing car truly in anger until Sunday’s race at ‘The Glen’. It certainly was fun to see him back in action, and it seemed like personal enjoyment was his true driving force all weekend. After his couple of Truck and Xfinity Series starts during his hiatus from F1 in 2011, it seemed a good fit both for Raikkonen and Project 91’s ambitions.
“It’s a lot different than when I was here the last time,” said Raikkonen, reflecting on his toe-dipping NASCAR races at the Charlotte oval. “It’s very relaxed.
“The schedule is a lot different than it was last time. What happened to many sports after COVID was that they figured out that we really don’t need to spend as many days over the weekend at the track. Obviously, in hindsight, it would be better for me if we had more practice, but that’s how it is.
“I really like it. It’s a lot more of a family atmosphere here than in F1, so I like it.”
Raikkonen was accompanied throughout his weeks-long US odyssey with wife Minttu and his son and daughter. While it’s pretty rare for F1 drivers to have their entire young families around them, in NASCAR it’s the norm to have their partners and kids on the pit stand if they wish – or hanging out in huge motorhomes that often have a playground nearby to keep the small ones entertained.
And while they were doing their thing, Raikkonen was able to do what he enjoys – driving racing cars – as well as having some banter with his new rivals.
“Generally, it’s just nice to race whoever it’s going to be,” he said. “It’s always exciting when you race against people that you haven’t raced against before.
“[In NASCAR] they’re very professional. The rules are slightly different than what I’m used to, but I’m happy to be here and meet the guys. I remember from the last time – they’re very relaxed, easy-going and it’s easy to talk to other drivers. It’s a bit different than what I’m used to from where I come from.”
While many write Raikkonen off for his often-monosyllabic responses to fluffy questions, his racing heart is true. Ask him about James Hunt or Colin McRae and he’s quite the chatterbox, and the F1 history of Watkins Glen didn’t pass him by either…
“Obviously I know a little bit of the history of F1 being here and have seen some old videos from it,” he said. “It’s a great place and a nice area. It sort of feels like the middle of nowhere, but I enjoy that. It’s good to be here.”
While the DTM, World Endurance Championship or even a return to the World Rally Championship might have been easier for him, Raikkonen went for an almost completely alien culture for his first post-F1 start and walked into the proverbial lion’s den for a one-off cameo in the latter half of a keenly-fought NASCAR Cup season.
Thanks to NASCAR’s testing rules, he didn’t get days of pounding around a test track as for instance Mansell had during his 1998 BTCC cameo. West Surrey Racing boss Dick Bennetts tells a great yarn about bringing a top-end catering unit to a private test at Pembrey, only to find the 1992 F1 world champion sat in his Jaguar eating sandwiches that his wife had made for him. That said, there was a photo doing the rounds of Raikkonen in his RV with a cream cake and a can of Perrier…
Before his Cup debut, Raikkonen got a couple of hours in a Next Gen test car at the VIR road course – ironically where he once tore up one of Robby Gordon’s Dodge Cup cars in 2011 – and some sessions in Chevrolet’s NASCAR simulator. The first time he actually drove his #91 Trackhouse Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 was a 20-minute practice session (twice interrupted by red flags) straight before qualifying on Saturday, which he wisely treated like a race run.
He qualified 27th, which Raikkonen was quite content with due to his lack of track time. Fleeting moments of sheer brilliance, coupled with an understanding of just how difficult and specialised the series is, is entirely common from my experience of covering these competitive ex-F1 animals.
Perhaps more importantly, Raikkonen’s involvement created an opportunity for F1 fans to be introduced to a new racing series – and Sunday’s Cup race at The Glen was a fun one (once it got going after a substantial rain delay), with divergent strategies, some fantastic wheel-to-wheel racing and a typically hard-fought finish.
It’s a credit to Raikkonen to just how well he was received by the NASCAR paddock. Martin Brundle tells an epic tale about the International Race of Champions series, a one-make stock car series that ran in America in the late 1980s and ’90s, in which he excelled. He was getting set for the Michigan superspeedway finale, sat by his car, when Dale Earnhardt Sr paid a visit and gave a few sage words of advice: “Don’t forget your kids”.
Contrast that with Ryan Blaney asking which seat Raikkonen had taken in a previous press conference – just so he could sit there – which demonstrated the reverence in which the Cup regulars held the Finn. It appeared that he was raced clean and fair throughout, until the unfortunate clash that put him out.
Typically, Raikkonen showed absolutely no fear in the early stages of the race in wet conditions. He ran as high as 14th early on before pitting for slicks, with crew chief Darian Grubb trying to nurse him to a window where he could complete the race on two stops – but he fell a few laps short as his tyres wilted.
However, this alternate strategy meant he’d run with the hounds for the start of the second stage, restarting in tenth and gaining a spot from Chris Buescher straight away. He peaked in eighth, as Todd Gilliland broke an axle ahead of him, before Hendrick Motorsports pair Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson zoomed by – they’d end up fighting for the win.
In reality, Raikkonen was never really in the hunt at the front but his hopes of a likely top-20 finish ended when Austin Dillon spun off at the Inner Loop soon after the restart of the final stage. In the stack-up of cars that followed, Loris Hezemans ran into the back of Brad Keselowski and Raikkonen’s right-front corner clipped Hezemans’ rear-left. Out of control, he speared left into the tyre wall after a collision that was painful in more ways than one.
“I had a good line there, but everybody seemed to come [to] the left,” he explained. “Unfortunately, I had no time to react.
“The first impact, somebody hit the tyre or the wheel directly and the [steering] wheel spun. There is something wrong with the wrist, but that’s how it goes.”
Raikkonen clambered out, with his pride and ambition probably as dented as much as the car or his wrist.
Raikkonen’s NASCAR cameo certainly demonstrated his desire to compete – to “haul ass”, as Trackhouse team boss Justin Marks expected – that burned just as bright as the days when this writer used to see him hammer around during his 2000 Formula Renault UK season. And it was a fit and trim Raikkonen who turned out too, with zero signs of ‘after F1’ excess, but a typically inscrutable one too…
“There’s no plans for anything after this,” he said. “I wanted to have fun, to do as well as we can. I think it’s just a nice challenge, it’s a new experience.”
Maybe he’s ticked it off, maybe he wants more – that’s something only he knows: “We’ll see, I don’t know,” he shrugged when pressed.
For Trackhouse, this is absolutely a project that wants to expand its horizons. Marks, one of the sharpest and most ambitious guys in the NASCAR paddock, said he wants Project 91 to include “all of the road courses during the season and then potentially some of the major events, like the Daytona 500, Coca-Cola 600, or something like that.
“I think at some point, you get so many races that you have to look at just actually fielding a third full-time car. But I think for Project 91, it’s a six-to-eight race programme potentially next year and beyond.”
So the door is open, and it’s now up to Raikkonen to see if he’s up for it. On one hand he might not be fussed with all the media attention he got, although he certainly seemed to enjoy the respect his rivals gave to him.
After a journalist asked him why he would risk his fine reputation for expected NASCAR failure, he’d remarked in classic Raikkonen style: “I don’t see any risk… why not? What do I have to lose? If I do bad in a NASCAR race or bad in any race, I don’t care… I do it for myself. A good or bad end result, it could happen even if I did 20 races. They all could be bad for many different reasons. I don’t see any negative.
“It’s great what Justin and the team is doing, giving a chance for all of us from Europe. It’s not as known… obviously over the years, NASCAR is more known there, but I’m sure there are a lot of drivers that would like to have a chance to try it. It’s not very easy, so maybe it will open some doors in the future for more chances to try and get more Europeans into the sport.”
Even if Raikkonen doesn’t come back, it was great to be reminded of his disdain for a daft question and to have him as a cheerleader for this project to widen the global interest in this most insular of American motorsports.