Kimi Räikkönen: “Antonio once raced for me!”

source: Autosprint No.8, 19 Feb 2019

One thing is certain: Alfa Romeo has given Räikkönen back the smile and the mood to joke that Ferrari’s last five years had taken away from him. Kimi and Giovinazzi, a few days before starting the test in Barcelona with the new Alfa Romeo F1 powered by Ferrari, allowed themselves a “day of nostalgia”, immersing themselves at Balocco in the history and culture of Alfa Romeo. Discovering how great the tradition and history of the Milanese brand is, the first constructor to win a Formula One world championship back in 1950. Enzo Ferrari called Alfa Romeo “la mamma”, precisely because it was Alfa that gave the young Drake almost a hundred years ago the chance to start his career, first as a driver and then as a team principal, to use modern terminology. The plunge into the Alfa Romeo history for Räikkönen and Giovinazzi took place at Balocco, the historic Alfa circuit that now belongs to the FCA group. Balocco, to put it simply, is to Alfa Romeo like the Fiorano track is to Ferrari. But Balocco is less well known among enthusiasts than Fiorano because it is hyper-secret and off-limits for everyone because here are tested all the prototypes under development of the Fiat group, and also those of Ferrari. The Balocco area, which lies between the Piedmontese rice fields between Novara and Vercelli, is enormous: it contains a total of 26 tracks, including off-road tracks, and a high-speed ring with raised bends, 7.8 km long, longer than Indianapolis.

But the original Balocco track, and the most important one, is the track known as the “Misto Alfa”. A 5.6 km circuit made up of 19 corners and two very long straights. According to the habits of the time, all the most famous and demanding curves of the European tracks were reproduced on the Balocco track. There is a turn that copies the mythical Lesmo of Monza and a twisty path that reproduces a part of the Zandvoort circuit, including the famous Tarzan hairpin.

Balocco has weaned all of the most famous Alfa Romeo racing cars of the last fifty years. The Alfa Romeo Formula 1 of the late 70’s took its first steps with drivers like Brambilla and Giacomelli at the wheel. In Balocco the legendary Alfa Turismo of the 60s and 70s, such as the Giulia T2 and GTA driven by De Adamich, Giunti, Nanni and Zeccoli, were launched. And Balocco was also the home of the Alfa Romeo 33 TT12, the “barchetta” that gave Alfa the World Championship for Makes title in 1975. The latest Alfa Romeo World Title. It was the same car that Kimi Räikkönen found surprisingly on display in front of the Balocco farmhouse, where the Autodelta racing department also used to be located and where the engineer Carlo Chiti had his own office.

When Räikkönen saw the car, his eyes lit up. “Did it really have a 12-cylinder engine?” he asked. Then he approached the Alfa 33, opened the door and climbed on board to the driver’s seat. Nodding to Giovinazzi to join him. He tinkered for a while in the cockpit looking for the start button but was then told that the 33 had no fuel in the tank and therefore he had to give up turning it on. “I wanted to hear the rumble of the 12-cylinder engine, it’s an exciting sound. When I started in F1 there were still the V10 engines and I remember well the scream they made!” Kimi Räikkönen, despite being the oldest and most experienced driver on the F1 grid, knows little or nothing about Alfa Romeo’s history. And a visit to Balocco helped him to immerse himself in Alfa’s glorious past and understand how prestigious this brand was in the past. “I never owned an Alfa Romeo: my first car, when I was young, was a Lada; but I have driven one because one of my cousins had an Alfa Romeo. My most vivid memory of the Alfa brand is linked to the car in the DTM: the mid-1990s four-wheel drive 155. I was a teenager, I saw them running on TV. They were impressive.”

Räikkönen’s competitive past, on the other hand, is linked to the Sauber brand. It was with the Swiss single-seater that Kimi made his debut in F1. In a private test at Mugello in 2001 when he was just 21 years old. It is said that he went so fast that even Schumacher, engaged on the track with Ferrari that same day, asked around who was that boy in the Sauber that had impressed him. Räikkönen, however, puts away that episode. “I heard this story but I wasn’t aware of it. I was much more worried because that year they didn’t want to grant me the F1 superlicence because they said that I didn’t have enough experience (Kimi had only 23 races to his credit in Formula Ford and Formula Renault before the jump in F1). It annoyed me a lot. Luckily after the good result of the first race in Australia (6th place) I got the final one”.

In October Räikkönen will become the third driver of the modern era to race in F1 at the age of 40 after Schumacher and Mansell. 40 years old, but he doesn’t show it at all. Neither physically nor characterically. You can see that the distance from the stressful Ferrari environment made him reborn. It gave him a new serenity that made him rejuvenate mentally.

“Here at Alfa Romeo the environment is certainly more relaxed, we are focused on the racing aspect and not on the collateral things. I still enjoy racing and that’s the important thing.” Räikkönen also discovered a curious detail that links him to Giovinazzi, his new teammate: “Antonio once raced in Formula 3 for me. I was the owner of the team that gave him a car! We are talking about five or six years ago, when among my various activities I owned a team in English F3 called ‘Double R’ which were the initials of my name and my manager, Robertson. For some races an Italian driver ran for us: Giovinazzi. But I didn’t really know him and in the following years I had never noticed this coincidence: it was him who reminded me of that when we met in Ferrari. And now we find ourselves in this Alfa Romeo F1”. Already grandfather and grandson…

With the help of “grandfather” Räikkönen, Antonio Giovinazzi will try to hurry up his apprenticeship in Formula One. At Balocco, Antonio was certainly more at home than Kimi; yet he seemed less relaxed than his team-mate because he knows he’s up for a big career chance in 2019. Giovinazzi owes everything to Marchionne who wanted him in Ferrari as third driver two years ago and to Arrivabene who last October took advantage of the Ferrari option which, as engine supplier, had the right to choose one of the two drivers of the Sauber team who became Alfa Romeo. Now Antonio will have to deserve the trust and the weight of the responsibility to represent the return of an Italian driver in F1 eight years after Trulli and Liuzzi, “It will be a great responsibility for me to debut in F1 with a name as important as Alfa Romeo but there is also the pride of representing after many years an all-Italian pair in F1. Really a lot of stuff. ”

Giovinazzi knows that the team behind him is strong, solid, ambitious and growing. “If we look at the previous season we have to realize that in the end Sauber-Alfa really did a top championship: it had started the season in the back of the field and instead ended 2018 constantly finishing in the top ten. So we expect to start this year at the point where we were at the end of 2018, already being in the top ten. And then improve during the season.”

Giovinazzi trusts in the help that Räikkönen will give him: “He is a very strong driver and it gives me confidence to see him charged and enthusiastic about this adventure. He is much more relaxed: I talked to Kimi more in these two months in Alfa Romeo than in two years in Ferrari. I well know he’s an Iceman, but in reality he’s not closed as they say: he’s a guy you can talk to and compare yourself with. In the end I’m really happy to have him on the team for the first year because he’s the most experienced driver there is. From whom could I ever learn more about F1 than from him? Kimi is a very generous guy: he is not one of those drivers who keeps things to himself, who is reluctant to reveal his information. He’s one of those drivers who if you ask him for something, he’ll help you without any problems.

One of the few advantages that Giovinazzi will have in a 2019 all to discover is to debut in a track like Melbourne. The only circuit of the world championship where he has already competed in a GP bringing the Sauber to 12th place in 2017. “Yes, but everything will be different this year. It’s true that it’s an advantage to start from a circuit where I’ve already raced, and I really like it, but the conditions are very different. In 2017 I was practically prefixed on Saturday morning for the GP because of Wehrlein’s injury: I had to jump into the car blindly, I didn’t know Sauber or even the track, I was responsible for starting in F1 in a car that wasn’t mine. The most stressful situation that there can be for a newcomer. This time it will be different: I will finally have time to get ready and discover the car in the winter tests, I will do free practice, I will have my qualifying, I will not be on loan but my car will be customized in every detail for me. And above all, when I get on it in Melbourne, I will already know it well from the kilometres covered in the winter tests. I can’t wait!”

Räikkönen says that he is not a rookie because he already raced two GPs but Antonio instead feels like a pure rookie. What will be the biggest difficulty? “I know almost all the tracks having done here and there free practices, tests and GP2 races. But the stress of the race weekend is completely different from the tests and it is still unknown to me: there is the tension of qualifying, the race and the 70 laps to drive 100%, and then the strategies to follow, the pit stops. These are all experiences that I miss and with which I will have to gradually become familiar. The stress of the race generates tension but it is one of the most beautiful emotions that an F1 driver can experience.” Giovinazzi hasn’t set himself any targets yet: “I don’t set myself a specific position as the minimum result: I want to start calmly and learn from Kimi in the first races, then improve race by race. And maybe take advantage of unforeseen opportunities like those crazy races where anything can happen.”

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