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'For him, dark glasses were invented to protect a man from other people’s eyes'

Read this extract from ‘The Unknown Kimi Raikkonen.’

Kimi Räikkönen (file pic).
Kimi Räikkönen (file pic).
Image: Imago/PA Images

THE FOLLOWING PASSAGE is an extract from ‘The Unknown Kimi Raikkonen.’

It’s 1981 in Karhusuo, Espoo. It’s night time; the boy is restless, he can’t get to sleep. His mother is trying to soothe him, picks him up again; the boy has always liked being held. He’s very different from her other son, who is two years older; he’s more sensitive, with his feelers out. At last the boy falls asleep in the early hours of the morning.

The next day, on her way to work, the exhausted mother thinks of what she and her husband have already been concerned about for a long time: the boy doesn’t speak, not a word, even though he’s nearly three.

The parents take the boy to be examined. There’s nothing wrong with him; he performs all the tasks quickly, actually more quickly than is average for his age. He just doesn’t speak. Maybe it’ll come later.

The speech comes in the end and, after saying goodbye to cuddles, the boy takes off at breakneck speed. Action beats words 10–0. His legs work faster than his tongue; the flaxen-haired boy has broken loose.

36 years on, his forename has lost its second half. He’s just Kimi today; Kimi-Matias has vanished in a cloud of dust, and no one remembers his official first name any longer. It’s unlikely that many people even know it, only perhaps one or two of the dozens of fans in the foyer of the Sama-Sama Hotel in Kuala Lumpur on Friday at 9.10am. At least they know he’ll come out of the lift soon – and won’t say a word.

The fans come from Malaysia, Japan and China. They speak Formula English among themselves, with a scant vocabulary but with a lot of noise. Screaming and cooing know no language barriers. They flit from one lift door to another, and their simultaneous, ringing utterances sound as if exotic birds had flown to the scene to peck at the same morsel: a taciturn driver.

The fans glance expectantly at a familiar figure, Kimi’s affairs manager, Sami Visa, who comes down to the foyer in lift number two. He’s carrying a Ferrari rucksack with the numbers 007 printed on it. The fans are not deceived by the James Bond reference; seven is Kimi’s race number. They know what Visa’s appearance in the foyer means: Kimi will be down soon, and we’ll be the first ones to see him.

The doors of lift number four open. The man in red has arrived.

Kimi wears a T-shirt with a collar covered in sponsors’ logos, a pair of shorts, a cap and black glasses. Mark Arnall, his physiotherapist, also in red, comes out of the lift at the same time. He has accompanied Kimi for the past 16 years, ensuring the driver has all he needs. Peace and privacy are the only things that Arnall can’t supply.

Kimi sees the fans and stops. He knows what he has to do before diving into the Maserati waiting outside. A couple of minutes, 40 metres, then the encounter will be over.

Sami Visa tries to keep the cooing fans at arm’s length. They hand over one cap and one shirt at a time for Kimi to sign — they mustn’t be allowed to touch him. Kimi writes ‘KR’, or something like it, scrawling his initials quickly. Then the next one. Is there one more? Very well, one more. His face remains expressionless, except for a fleeting change, a twitch round the lips: a smile, a silent present to the faithful supporters who have travelled a long way to be there.

The fans shriek for joy. They’ve got something, and something is better than nothing. The main doors slide open, and Kimi walks quickly to the Maserati and sits down in the driver’s seat — which has been adjusted to the lowest possible position, the back reclining as far as it can. This is the way he sits in all cars. It’s a work-related habit: the driver of a Formula car sits in an almost horizontal position.

Mark Arnall occupies the passenger seat and passes Kimi a bottle of carefully selected liquid. The weather is humid and warm, 34 ̊C. The air conditioning ensures we are immune to the outside temperature. The car leaps forward. As soon as we’re over the hotel ramp and on the motorway, Kimi accelerates to over 100 km/h. His left hand shakes the half-litre bottle of some grey, thick substance, a smoothie. His right hand holds the wheel, the middle finger changes gear; the car jerks. I catch a glimpse of the speed limit: 70 km/h. When the limit becomes 100 km/h, Kimi accelerates to 140. I glance at Sami Visa. His expression says: ‘Don’t say anything; this is how it always goes.’

The distance from the hotel to the Sepang circuit is just under ten kilometres. Kimi’s team-mate Sebastian Vettel left with his trainer, Antti Kontsas, before us but we arrive at the circuit at the same time.

He goes where no one has any business or the keys to enter: his own world. what might look like introversion from the outside is simply concentration.

Apart from ‘good morning’, Kimi hasn’t said a word on the way there, even though his closest colleagues, Mark and Sami, are in the car. I recall what Sami said to me earlier: ‘Kimi becomes a racing driver first thing in the morning. He goes where no one has any business or the keys to enter: his own world. What might look like introversion from the outside is simply concentration.’

We get out of the car. Visa reminds us that, before we go to the pit area, there’s a brief meeting with fans. Around a couple of hundred of them have been enclosed behind a wire fence, and they hand over caps, cards, their arms and T-shirts. Kimi jots his vague ‘KR’ scrawl on the caps, poses for a mobile phone swaying at the end of a selfie stick, and does all he can to ensure he won’t need to do anything more.

kimi

To the fans, this meeting means a lot. They’ve paid a great deal of money to get here to look at the cars – normally just glimpsed fleetingly – and the drivers they hardly ever see at such close quarters. They want a great deal, but get little. They want facts that become fiction as time goes by. The stories change; rumours emanating from the pit area are more plentiful than exhaust fumes. The drivers, inside their large helmets, are spied on TV screens looking like men on the moon. The scoreboard displays the truth, and the drivers repeat what happened in a few short words. But the fans want a piece of the man himself; they want to see him, maybe to touch him, to look into his eyes, hidden behind dark glasses. Into those ice-blue eyes, which they’ve only ever seen in photos and which scan the racetrack for a passage, a gap for overtaking — or hiding.

Hard to say what they get out of Kimi, who during his 18-year career, has given as many interviews as Lewis Hamilton, the four-time world champion and social media king, gives in a week.

It’s all over in 10 minutes and Kimi skips towards the pit area. His way of advancing is somewhere between running and walking. The nimble figure darts like a hare through the area and he finds his way into the depths of Ferrari’s garage. He’s gone. Mysterious are the ways of this man.

His room within Ferrari’s quarters is sparse: a space of some 12 square metres built of a chipboard-like material. Every centimetre is utilised to the full: a narrow bed suitable for massage; a table on which Mark Arnall has arranged three helmets, a pair of driving gloves and shoes, towels and several bottles of carefully blended drinks. A corner of the room contains a small, blue bathtub made of reinforced plastics, full of ice-cold water. The driver sits in it for a short while before the race and after the race. His body tempera- ture has to be regulated because the sun heats the 700-kilo racing car to an unforgiving heat. Glamour has abandoned this room in favour of the media, where it thrives.

We move on to Ferrari’s hospitality quarters, which are located in the paddock area, a long alley reserved for guests and the press. The teams have all erected their miniature worlds along it. The paddock is also accessible to those who have paid around €6,000 for a package covering the whole weekend. For that price, you get good food and something that is unimaginable to the holder of a standard ticket. And what exactly is that something? It’s a glimpse of the driver, a seat in a restaurant built above the pit garages, plus a feeling of importance. People have, throughout the history of mankind, paid substantially more than the recommended price for that feeling.

Ferrari’s hospitality quarters smell of basil, garlic and freshly baked white bread with a thin crust. Ferrari has brought Italy to Malaysia. That’s what the team always does, whatever the cost. All the delicacies on the laden tables are traditional Italian dishes created by the head chef and his assistants. Sergio Bondi, Ferrari’s chief of logistics, says that everything possible is brought along from Italy: pasta, coffee, chairs, tables, even the flour for the bread rolls. The chef sources the best raw materials in each country two days before the race. China, Abu Dhabi, Australia – no matter which country it is, Italy will be constructed there. In Europe, Ferrari requires thirty trucks for transport. Other locations entail flying 300,000 kilometres each year. After every race, the 44,000-kilo circus is dismantled and packed up in the space of seven hours. Annual coffee consumption amounts to 70,000 cups. This year, 170 Ferrari employees were present at the testing of the new car in Barcelona. All this boosts the yearly budget to well over €400 million. If you think about it, the amount is hardly rational.

And all this money to enable two young men to drive for about an hour and a half, defying death and with no destination – that is, they return to the very same spot they started at, soaking wet and panting, their necks on fire, short of words but alive.

And all this money to enable two young men to drive for about an hour and a half, defying death and with no destination – that is, they return to the very same spot they started at, soaking wet, panting, their necks on fire, short of words but alive.

I’m deep in thought when Sami taps me on my shoulder. It’s time to go into the garage to observe the beginning of the first practice session. We approach the heart of the matter in the labyrinthine pit area: two red cars. An island between the cars is full of computers and men in red wearing ear protectors. We stand further away, so earplugs are enough for us.

Kimi is already ensconced in his car — only his helmet and right hand are visible; the hand reaching out for a bottle handed over by Mark Arnall. Arnall’s left hand carries another one. There must always be two bottles, in case one goes missing or breaks. A parched driver is a useless driver.

It’s time to start the cars. The Ferrari sounds like a 700-kilo pig being slaughtered, stabbed with a hundred knives on both sides. The noise comes from an angry and injured beast that wants to get the hell out of the garage, away from the tyranny of the men in red into the freedom of the start/finish straight, onto the enclosed track.

italy-formula-1-test-2020 Kimi Raikkonen (file pic). Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

The screeching penetrates the earplugs and pierces the head like molten steel. The car hurtles out of the garage onto the track, where it accelerates to 200 km/h in five seconds. It takes under a minute and a half to drive around the 5.5-kilometre circuit. The cars dash past the pit garage like low, barely recognisable missiles. The monitor is your best source for getting the whole picture, even though everything takes place before your eyes.

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I mention this infernal racket to Kimi later. He comments drily that the sound of the modern-day cars is reminiscent of a lawnmower, while the models of a few years ago made a proper noise.

There are two free practice sessions; both last for an hour and a half and are for examining set-ups and testing tyres. Everything is geared to preparing for tomorrow’s qualifying. By the afternoon, the track is quiet, but the working day continues with technical discussions. These are followed by what Kimi learnt at the age of three, but what is awkward in front of strangers: talking. He stands before 10 microphones, rubbing his neck with his right hand. His mother Paula knows what that means: the boy’s pissed off. He’s got to say something, form sentences that sound clear but mean nothing. The world is full of such sentences, but the compost heap for them has an unlimited capacity. They’re left to decompose on the internet, while hard copies of newspapers are recycled or wrapped round fish and chips. No one — no editors, fans or drivers — remembers after a fortnight where those sentences were uttered. Was it in Malaysia, Japan, China, or perhaps in Austin, Texas? They don’t remember because they’re the same words, repetitions of the same thing, verbal confirmations of the numbers displayed on the scoreboard.

You were the fifth fastest in the free practice. What does that bode for tomorrow’s qualifying? ‘Hmm. I’m not sure.’ You were 300ths of a second faster than your team-mate. Why do you think that was? ‘Hmm. Hard to say.’

Did the car feel good for tomorrow’s qualifying? ‘Hmm. It was OK. We’ll see tomorrow.’

Are you confident about tomorrow? ‘Hmm. Yeah.’

You haven’t yet given up on the Constructors’ Championship? ‘Hmm. No.’

He looks up, down, past the reporters, anywhere except straight at them. For him, dark glasses were invented to protect a man from other people’s eyes, not the sun.

The interview is over. Kimi skips off and disappears back into Ferrari’s garage, where the team will dissect the technical aspects of the day’s events.

Finally he reappears and weaves his way purposefully through the crowd. You could easily lose sight of him. It’s dusk by the time we’re driving towards the hotel. Kimi accelerates till he’s over the speed limit and fumbles for the drink with his free hand.

It’s quiet, apart from a humming sound; only the Maserati growls from time to time, and that’s to order.

I can’t see into Kimi’s mind but I can guess at its general drift. Another day’s over, home is over 10,000 kilometres away in Switzerland, another fortnight before I get there. The new fellow at the back is writing a book about me. Soon I’ll be able to have a shower and go to bed. I’ll sleep as late as possible. I wonder how they’re doing at home, if everything’s all right, if Robin has learnt new words. Does Rianna allow Minttu to sleep, or is the little girl restless? I’d like to be there but I can’t. The car was good today; it felt good to be inside it. I like driving best; the problems start as soon as I get out of the car. Nobody asks questions when you’re racing.

Kimi backs the Maserati into a parking space and starts striding towards the doors. A few tenacious fans are keeping vigil in the foyer. The tired driver has taken off his sunglasses; his blue eyes look straight at them and his right hand does the familiar gesture of scrawling ‘KR’ on a cap. The lift door whirrs and he’s gone.

Late at night, I log onto the internet in the hotel room. Thursday’s press conference about the coming weekend catches my eye. The drivers were asked what sort of memories they have about the Malaysian race, now to be run for the last time. The drivers answer dutifully and politely — that means boringly. Then it’s Kimi’s turn. He had his first race win here in 2003, and a reporter asks what he’ll miss most. A brief silence is followed by words that drop like stones on a tiled floor. Kimi says that, to be honest, he doesn’t know if he’ll miss anything. It’s a nice circuit. But the airport, the hotel and the circuit are all you see here. You can choose if you’ll miss any of them or not.

Some of the reporters crease up; others are silent. This is the essence of humour: when all else fails, try the truth. Every driver and every reporter knows that there’s no chance of getting to know the city, the people or the local dishes during a race weekend. Everyone knows it; no one says it. Apart from one man, who learnt to speak at the age of three.

‘The Unknown Kimi Raikkonen’ by Kari Hotakainen is published by Simon & Schuster. More info here

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