Beat Zehnder: “It was sympathy at first sight!”

Beat Zehnder and Kimi Räikkönen 2001 in Montreal.

Beat Zehnder (52), the long-serving Sauber team manager, spoke with SonntagsBlick about his Finnish buddy.

Beat Zehnder and Kimi Räikkönen 2001 in Montreal. (© Antti Puskala)

When did you meet Kimi Räikkönen for the first time?
In September 2000 at his first test for us. In Mugello, on probably the most difficult test track in the world.

Your first impression?
Honestly, I can’t really remember. There was just a slim boy standing there and he was quick right away. That surprised everyone – and is very rare in Formula 1.

So it was sympathy at first sight with the racing driver Räikkönen?
You could call it that. We knew immediately that we had a great driver in the team. I had to talk to him a lot because he had no idea and the Formula 1 regulations are almost as thick as the Bible.

That was all?
No. Our physio Josef Leberer had to get him fit first. I mean really fit.

Kimi scored nine World Championship points in the first year, which would correspond to 52 points in today’s standings …
Yeah, that was sensational. And our relationship got better and better. Kimi could always trust me – until today. That’s why we are perhaps the best Formula 1 buddies.

So one reason why Kimi now wants to get rid of the Ferrari pain at Sauber …
Because of me, Kimi certainly doesn’t extend his career. He just wants to race and have fun. He believes in the team, sees that it’s going up, and an important point is technical director Simone Resta, whom he knows from Ferrari.

Where and when did the decisive talks take place?
I don’t like to talk about these things. But team boss Frédéric Vasseur and I went to Kimi’s house in Baar twice after Monza. Later, Fred made the contract with him.

Your sympathy for Kimi will last forever …
I hope so. We are often together privately, have a chat and we have never lied to each other. That is very rare in our sport.

How many Sauber people from 2001 are still at the race track?
Three. Physio Josef Leberer, the brake specialist Bruno Rohr and me.

Bruno Rohr and Jo Leberer
Bruno Rohr and Jo Leberer (© Lukas Gorys)

Your shock moments with Kimi in the Sauber 2001?
There was Imola, when he suddenly only held the steering wheel in his hands at full speed. Kimi didn’t brake, but tried to re-engage the steering wheel with the quick lock. And in Suzuka he had the worst accident when the rear suspension broke and he crashed into Alesi’s Jordan. Fortunately, he remained uninjured.


Gazzetta dello Sport, 10.11.2018Kimi interview Gazzetta dello Sport 11.10.2018

Kimi, eight seasons and a world championship in Maranello: “It doesn’t matter to me how I will be remembered, in life I have done what I wanted, that counts. And in Sauber I will have fun.

A victory and another ten podiums, “just” 48 points gap to Sebastian Vettel whom Ferrari has elected since his engagement in 2015 as top driver.
At the age of 39, 2018 proved to be Kimi Räikkönen’s best season since he agreed to return to Maranello five years ago, where he had been removed to make way for Alonso. So why not confirm him? Because Ferrari has exercised the right/duty to think about the future which certainly cannot be represented by a driver born in 1979. And they (rightly) preferred Charles Leclerc, 10 years younger than Vettel.

But Ferrari has had for Kimi, who in recent years was asked for sacrifices (remember Monaco 2017?), a soft spot, favoring the agreement with Sauber, that for Maranello is in fact a satellite team.
It will be because of the victory in the US, the first after 5 years, or because Räikkönen is made this way, but we meet him in the paddock of Interlagos, in good mood, smiling, sometimes lively, talking about the past, present and future, of racing and also a bit of private Kimi.

Let’s start from the success in Texas: that victory has changed the perspective on your second adventure with Ferrari?

Winning is always a pleasure but it does not change my life or the perception how my time was here. I proved to still be able to win and it’s enough for me.

But you lost the title: there was talk of errors of the driver, the fault of the car and the team. What idea did you make?

Hamilton has got more points than us and therefore deserved the success. If you ask around here, everyone has their own recipe of what would have done differently, it would spring an endless discussion. I think the team understood how it should have acted, even if there is no certainty that the result would have been different.

How could you sum up your second experience with Ferrari?

Difficult. There have been a lot of changes in these five years and I think the right path has been taken in the last three. But now Ferrari is in good hands.

Are you referring to Arrivabene?

He’s the best boss I’ve ever had. He is the right man for this job and he is doing it well.

Certainly when you returned to Maranello, in 2014 you were perhaps the protagonist of your worst season in Formula 1.

I knew I would find an environment neither easy nor nice. And that it would be tough. So for me it was not a surprise.

Do you have something to suggest to Leclerc that will happen?

No, because I am convinced that there are already so many people doing it. I hope he can enjoy and get good results. Obviously he arrives in a different place but he will soon get used to it.

After Schumacher, you are the driver who has raced for the longest time in Ferrari, eight seasons in total (2007-09, 2014-18). You won only one title, but it’s still a great achievement.

It’s certainly a privilege because in any corner of the world they know what Ferrari is, they know its history, its tradition. Being part of it has made me proud.

Sauber, McLaren, Ferrari, Lotus. You have driven for these teams.

And it was a great enrichment because I got to know closely the way of work of Swiss, English and Italians. The target to be reached is the same, but the way to get there is different.

Now at age 40 you return to Sauber in a midfield team. It takes a lot of courage.

Why? I wouldn’t bet now on who will be first or second next year. Why should I be afraid to go to Sauber? My intention is to try to help them do well and have fun. When I returned to F1 with Lotus, people said that I had made a mistake, that I would not gain anything, and instead things went differently. It could happen again, right?

So you are still not tired of traveling the world?

In fact I would be happier staying at home rather than locked in a plane. But I continue to like racing and it’s the only reason why I will do it again next year. And then at Sauber I will be able to concentrate more on what I really love: driving.

You are very active on social media, love posting family images. What kind of father are you?

Well you should ask my children! Certainly they are not happy when I leave for the races. Robin is used to it now, he knows that I’ll be back, little Rianna still not. But she will understand. I am happy to be with them when I can and they are in a very carefree phase of life.”

At the track you always look rather phlegmatic, at home you never lose patience?

For sure, it’s normal. Even here, not everything is as I would like it. But I see no reason to get angry at small things, it would just be a waste of time.

Your radio messages are often funny, “Leave me alone, I know what I’m doing” made you even more popular.
“Let’s clarify one thing: sometimes we seem angry when we talk to the team because we raise our voices, but in reality we do it only because we fear we are not being heard. Communicating by radio is not an exercise as easy as one can believe from the outside. Here, even in that case many saw something negative, while the team had understood well the meaning of those words (such as to make a t-shirt, ed.) and had acted accordingly.

How would you like to be remembered in F.1?

I don’t care at all to be remembered or not. I realized what I wanted to do in life and it’s the thing that matters, I don’t care what others think.

Is it true that you are fond of sweets?

Yes, in Finland we make very good ones.

Tell us what attracted you to your wife?

I met her for the first time on one occasion where there were several people, we started to joke, I made her laugh. We started talking and from there everything was born.

Are you jealous?

Who? Me? I would not say I am, why should I be? If those who are with you want something else in life, you can have it.

You have a motocross team: when you stop, will you take care of it yourself?

Ah, but that is already happening, I’m involved six days a week. I divide the tasks with some friends but I know everything and I take most of the decisions. For sure when I will stop, I will go more often to the races but I won’t fly everywhere. I will want to stay more with my family, even if my son really likes motocross, to the point that he is already driving.

You have a lot of cars and motorbikes at home. Which one you love more?

It’s not like I have so many. In Finland I have a few old ones that I have restored. I own a Ferrari but I do not use it very often, I usually use the Jeep. But I use the car basically to go to the airport and to go to the supermarket. But if I have to go for a walk in the city, I use the bike which is faster. I’m no longer interested in cars like I once was.