It wasn't as though he was even supposed to be in with a shot at the title by the final round of the season. But in 2003, McLaren driver Kimi Raikkonen, at the age of 23 and in his third season of Formula One, did what he was paid to do: he drove the car he was given to the best of his ability and hoped. "We didn't have much expectation, because we didn't really know where we were going to stand against the others," the Finn said in Suzuka, Japan, in an interview held a day before the deciding race that would eventually see him finish second in the World Championship, only two points behind six times World Champion Michael Schumacher.
"You never get a very clear picture before the season in testing, because you don't know what the other teams are doing," he expands. "But I guess that's why the hopes were not as high [at the time] as maybe the results have been this year.
"I think if we can now improve the car as much as we did over the winter for next year, then we should be in good shape to really fight for every race win next season. I don't think that this has changed anything for this year - even when we saw that we were quick enough, we knew that this car would be around for half the season, and we went race by race and tried to score as many points as we can."
McLaren spent the 2002/2003 winter preparing two cars – a variation on the 2002 car, renamed the MP4/17D, and the all new MP4/18. The 18 was not planned to start the season – it was a radical departure from the old car, and as such the team planned to debut it when the races returned to Europe (much as Ferrari had done with the F2002 the year before) – and as such the 17D was designed around the existing car to start the season with a reliable, and hopefully faster, car.
Designing two cars concurrently is a massive undertaking, a huge financial and technical drain. In fact, only a team with the resources of McLaren or Ferrari could hope to carry off such an ambitious plan. And, considering the original MP4/17 was not a race-winning car in 2002 by a long shot, McLaren began this season with their chances of contending the Championship effectively written off.
Instead, though, McLaren surprised. David Coulthard won the opening round in Melbourne, Australia, and looked to have the Malaysian race coming to him when his car gave up, handing his Finnish teammate his debut win. Coulthard should have won the Brazilian Grand Prix too but was denied by the red flag ending of the race (a win which would have gone to Raikkonen had the race ended one lap earlier). Three races into the season, and McLaren were dominating both Drivers' and Constructors' Championship against the odds.
But the early European races saw the tide shift directions. With Ferrari competing so well and Williams also finding form at last in their recalcitrant new car, the push was on to find reliability in McLaren's new MP4/18 and introduce it as soon as possible. However, concentrating on the MP4/18 led to fewer improvements on the MP4/17D, and the team suffered as the competition was improving.
"[We suffered] a little, yeah," Raikkonen says. "Maybe [the other teams] got better and nothing really happened with our car. I guess once the team thought and made the decision that they were working more on the 18 to try and get it ready, it virtually took the effort out of the 17. But I don't know really; I think maybe we had a few bad races and bad days, and it cost us a lot of points. But you always do, really; every season you have a few bad races.
"But I think somewhat it was a good decision to use the 17D – okay, maybe it cost us a little bit to put so much effort in the 18 because it takes it away from the 17, but we learnt some things that we [were using in Suzuka] on the 17D from the 18. So I guess it paid off. For me, it didn't matter really, because I guess I'm just driving the car - whatever car they bring. I think I would have made the same choice, and I think it was the right choice."
Q: How different were the MP4/17D and the MP4/18, and did it have any effect on you when you were switching cars from testing to racing?
Raikkonen: "Not really – I guess it's quite a lot different but they never got it completely finished in time. From a driving point of view, it was a bit different to drive but it doesn't hurt you if you drive that car and then the other car the next day."
Q: How did they differ, though?
Raikkonen laughs. "That's our secret!"
Picking the high point of Raikkonen's season is a no brainer. "Definitely my first win," he states emphatically, "that is always the highest. And then my pole position in the Nurburgring. But most of the season has been pretty good so far, there have been lots of good races, and it's been fun."
There's a truism in motorsport that the first win is the hardest to get, because you don't really know how to win until you do. This was most evident in the career of fellow Finn Mika Hakkinen, who ran so close to winning for so long without success until he was handed a somewhat propitious win in Jerez 1997, after which he seemed to be able to win at will. "It lets you know that you can win, that's the only thing," Raikkonen explains. "But I don’t think it makes you suddenly half a second quicker.
"Maybe you are more confident, but at least you know that you can win the races when you are in a good package – that's really evident. I guess it's more a relief than anything else, just to know that you are able, because before you always just think you can win but you're never really 100% sure until you do it. And sure, it's nice to win the first time – it's always nice to win, but it's especially nice to win the first one."
There have been low points, too, just as there are for every racer, but Raikkonen's have been more noticeable because he has been at the top end of the Championship for almost the entire year. Most notable among these were the qualifying slip ups in Canada and Spain and having his engine let go while comfortably leading the European Grand Prix at the Nurburgring. "When we have a bad race - like a retirement or an accident in the start of the race - if it would have happened last year it would have been just one of those things," Raikkonen says. "But because we have the added pressure of the Championship [this year] it is more disappointing to have a bad race for us.
"I think the engine failure hurt [the most], because from qualifying you can always gain some places in the race, but if you retire then the race is all over. It's always easy to reflect afterwards if I had done this or that differently we would have this many points more."
An added complication to his title challenge came prior to the Italian Grand Prix, when the FIA announced a change in the tyre inspection procedure, following claims by Ferrari that the Michelin front tyres – used by McLaren among others – were illegal. The FIA's new policy completely changed the complexion of the test the team had planned in Monza, prior to the Italian Grand Prix – something McLaren boss Ron Dennis later said had severely damaged the team's preparations. Raikkonen, however, thinks differently.
"It didn't really hurt us at all," he states. "It hurt Michelin more, and all the work they had there to prepare for the races. I guess that was a big hassle for them for a few weeks, because we were so close to the race and they needed to make completely new tyres, and it's always going to hurt. I think they showed they can make the new tyres really quickly, and that's a good thing about Michelin. And since then they have brought a new construction again and I think it's back on track again; it's all working well again with the front and rear tyres, so I don't think overall it really was too much.
"I guess it had nothing to do with me - it's just the tyres that we use and this is normal what they did - they are always trying to get an advantage, and therefore the one who has it is the one driving in the front. I think the tyres [now are] maybe better than before, because in testing we went with good grip there, with the new tyres and other things we had."
Q: How do you see the relative strengths of Ferrari and McLaren?
Raikkonen: "I don't know – I guess from race to race it's always easy to change your prediction, and the weather conditions can make a difference, but our package seems to be quite good now and it is what it is."
Q: Do you feel you are competing with a slight disadvantage?
Raikkonen: "I don't know – I've never driven the Ferrari! Okay, maybe our car's not the best, but it seems to be good enough."
Most drivers don't like to talk about other drivers - it's almost as though they think they will give them more strength by praising them, however slightly. When pushed on who would give him competition in the years to come, post Michael Schumacher, Raikkonen notes: "I think there are a lot of drivers who are not going to be in Formula One for a long time - after three years they will go away - and then there will be only a few drivers that are in the top now. Of them, [Renault's Fernando] Alonso seems to go quite well, but then you never know what's going to happen in the future – I guess we just have to wait and see."
Raikkonen, in fact, says Renault's strong form in 2003 came as no surprise to him. "They ran quite well last year," he explains. "The beginning of this year they ran as well as the end of last year and they got better again, they had some really strong races and then some not, and you expect from that sort of thing that they would do much better this year. I think next year they will be better again, but hopefully we will also, and then we don't need to worry about it!"
The other driver that most people believe will take the fight to Raikkonen in the future is Juan Pablo Montoya, particularly since the Colombian is heavily rumoured to team up with Raikkonen at McLaren in 2005. "He's not my teammate yet," Raikkonen laughs, "and perhaps he's never going to be my teammate! It will be interesting to see what happens in the future."
Would he have a problem with Montoya sitting on the other side of the garage from him? "No, it doesn't change anything on my side of the team - we'll do exactly the same things that we've been doing so far and just try to beat that teammate, whoever it is. We don't have anything like number one or number two – we get exactly the same parts and everything, the same treatment - and it's up to the driver and the engineer who will make the car."
Raikkonen looked calm all weekend at Suzuka, almost serene, with the only exception being when he ran off the track and damaged his car during free practice. The odds were against him taking the title - he needed to win the race and have Michael Schumacher end out of the points. Was he nervous at all? "No, I don't think so," Raikkonen said the day before the big event. "We don't have much to lose because as we try to win the Championship here, I know that if we don't win it it's like… I don't know how to say it… we can only gain something.
"If we come second or third it's pretty much nothing, because if you ask people next year who came second and third then half of the people don't know. We will try everything to win the race and the Championship, and we'll see how it goes." In fact there was more pressure on him in the previous round, the US Grand Prix in Indianapolis, than in Suzuka. "That was pretty much the race that decided whether we were going to be in the Championship anymore or not. We ended up the race being the only guys still in the Championship against Michael, and that's why I remembered if we don't win this race we only can gain something, because for me if I finish second or third it doesn't really matter if we don't win this."
Raikkonen was a dark horse in the 2003 Championship, but he capitalized on the new points system, introduced this year, better than any of his other rivals. With only one win – compared to Schumacher's six – he kept his title hopes alive to the very end. Some people didn't like that; the system, which no longer favours victories over second or third place, was under criticism throughout the Japanese Grand Prix weekend. But Raikkonen remains unruffled by the fuss.
"We (will) try to win it – I don't care if we deserve it or not," he said on the eve of the race. "If we win it, we win it, and that is all." He has no doubts that either driver would be a worthy Champion: "Yeah. If he (Schumacher) wins then I think so yes, he deserves it. I don't look to how many wins you have – it doesn't count in the end – whoever has the most points at the end of the year wins."
At the end of the year, he was three points short, that's all. And despite his belief that no one will remember a year from now who finished second or third, Raikkonen's 2003 season is not likely to be forgotten so fast.