Forty years ago a memorable album and driver were born. With one thing in common: the wall
by Alberto Antonini
The audience of journalists remained frozen for a moment, then they all applauded. With the exception of that colleague who had studied and formulated a half-minute question to be answered with a syllable. From that blond who looked like he just woke up (badly) and instead came from a day on the track.
Kimi Räikkönen turns forty: and in the game of “remember where you were when…?” I wanted to look around the events of that autumn 1979 (yes, of course I was there, and also quite big; so big that I don’t remember it anymore). Well, when Kimi-Matias was a month old, in the famous house with the toilet in the yard, Pink Floyd released one of their most iconic albums. A concept based on the story of a man who builds a (virtual) wall around himself to protect himself from the world. And so far, it seems to me that the comparison with the character Räikkönen may fit well. Then came the film, with the role of the protagonist, Pink, played by Bob Geldof, at the time another beautiful sociopathic temper. So much that during the filming, Alan Parker, the director, went so far as to tell him that yes, it’s okay to internalize, but it may be better to reveal a feeling or two…
Is it just me who sees the similarities? I met Kimi when he was a rookie in 2001. He talked so softly (it’s interesting to hear me say it) that you had to lean forward. And it was of little use because, rather than expressing concepts, he threw words into the mixer. But I remember a sentence from the first interview, when I asked him about his military service. “I didn’t like it so much. I don’t like having people tell me what to do.”
Well, welcome to Formula 1, the planet where everyone thinks they always have something to tell you (however, if you find it, enjoy the video of Kimi as a recruit instructor). That first year in Sauber, a young Räikkönen discovered at his own expense that isolating himself from the world has a price. They realized that he didn’t pay attention during the briefings, he was reprimanded and had to apologize to everyone. I imagine that from there he learned to listen without giving satisfaction. I had several meetings with him at Ferrari. He mostly played with his mobile phone or with what was in front of him. But then when he went to the media he would repeat perfectly the instructions he had in the briefing. (The other driver had done it too…).
Not that it was always easy. Once we had a discussion during a winter test. During the long run there was a failure of the MGU-K. At the time, however, due to instructions from the top – indeed from the very top – one should not talk about problems with the power unit. He grumbled: “I don’t feel like telling people bullshit”. I told him it wasn’t bullshit at all: it was enough to talk about an electrical problem, after all what is the “K” if not an electric motor? He looked at me strangely, and went in front of the press. And he didn’t disappoint me.
Another time, however, still in a briefing, he humiliated a marketing manager who had shown him a request sheet, by scrunching it up in front of his face. “This stuff is useless.” And I also remember that debriefing (listened to through headphones) at the end of a race in which he felt penalized by his strategy. You’ll excuse me if I don’t say which one, but Kimi was silent or almost for the whole meeting, and at the time of the comments he started in a low voice: “Well, I don’t understand why you keep me here and you pay me what you pay me if then I can’t do my race…”. I don’t add anything else, except that that meeting didn’t end in a low voice. And we had also won…
Of all the nicknames, Iceman always seemed the least appropriate to me. I don’t pretend to judge people, but maybe I have a minimum capacity to describe them, having worked with them. Kimi is not a cold man; he is a shy man, with some communication difficulties, who has built his own wall, made of simulated indifference and sometimes even aggressiveness, to defend the thing he cares most about: his privacy. He has always privileged the essential. Although he drove for many years in a British team, unlike Vettel who uses fluent and refined English, he developed a primordial language; with his own concept of the comparative of majority (“more worse”) and a series of made phrases, such as “it is what it is”, which he uses to flavor public statements. Except then to amaze you with ironic and sharp phrases that show how attentive it really is to the world around him. I once accompanied him to Taiwan for a Ferrari promotion day. He quietly endured the press ritual and the adoration of the fans. Then, in a reserved room, in front of a chicken salad, he murmured with a half smile: “Does the California sell so badly that it is necessary to do all these events?…”.
He hates wasting time, especially on planes, he hates disorganization, but it only takes a moment to ignite his enthusiasm. Sponsorship day, on the outskirts of Shanghai, a horrendous dusty shed. He arrives and starts to protest: “There’s too much dust here, I have asthma, I can’t stay here…”. The program includes a meeting with a Chinese football star. And immediately afterwards, Kimi has to get into a road Ferrari and, controlling the drift, try to hit a ball and send it into the net. That’s like threading a needle on a horse. Well, can you believe that an hour later, when the cameras were off, he was still trying, tyre squeaking and laughing, and he kept going until he managed to hit at least the post?
The Kimi at the tracks and the private Kimi are two totally different people. Once we were guests of a mutual friend during a Grand Prix weekend. The first two days I saw the best Kimi, smiling and relaxed. He would go into the house, change immediately into his resting uniform – black clothing and white socks – and go about his business. I saw him with my own eyes, armed with a screwdriver, installing the wi-fi at our guest’s house. He arrives Saturday, bad qualification, he enters without talking, takes his share of pepperoni pizza and sits alone on the couch. The only time he opens his mouth is when a suspicious crackle rises from the sofa: “Hey, it’s the leather that makes the noise, not me!”
Sunday arrives, the tension of the race subsides and the only ice left is that in our glasses of vodka and sparkling water. Sitting in the garden, he starts to tell me in detail how he and his friends, in Finland, have fun with jet skis, so much that by now those from the water police have become friends… A river of words, but without protagonism. That evening I was reminded of another evening (or rather, late night) in Monaco, when I had met his father Matti. In an unpretentious bar above the Tabac, as unpretentious (always relatively, you understand) was the boat that housed Räikkönen sr. He had a black shirt, a bit of belly like an old rocker and an innate sympathy. I think his son looks more like him than he imagines. And I know he suffered so much when Matti left, too soon.
At this point, I know that someone will object: and about Räikkönen the driver, about his contract, about how the story with Ferrari ended, don’t you tell us anything? The fact is, I wanted to tell you about this, about Kimi. Trying to make it clear how and why, no matter how apparently abulic, grumpy, even unpleasant he can be, the instinctive sympathy he arouses in so many people is not misplaced. Of the driver I would like to mention two memories: one is the last (for now!) victory in F1, which in these days also turns one year. That evening in Austin I was working in the office and I could hear that in the big room, equipped with several bottles of champagne, the tone of voice of Kimi rose more and more. At the end he didn’t attend the party that was organized in the hotel. The few who saw him had to go up to the room…
And then there’s a second-hand story, told to me at Maranello. Also at the end of October, but twelve years ago. You know well what I’m talking about. Late at night, a group of Ferrari engineers appear in a bar. With them is a guy wrapped in a sweatshirt, the hood is pulled over his eyes. As soon as he enters the counter, his face is revealed and he screams: “I AM KIMI RRRÄIKKKKÖNEN… FORRRMULA ONE WORRRLD CHAMPIONNNN”…
Happy birthday, Pinki.