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Michael Bailey , Formula One correspondent
Tuesday, March 13, 2012
David Coulthard believes Kimi Räikkönen has returned to Formula One to feel the buzz of racing again – and the Lotus driver to be one of the surprises of 2012.
The 2001 world champion returns after two years in rallying, to compete for the Hethel-backed former Renault outfit.
And while the traditionally curmudgeonly Finn’s comeback has been questioned by some, Coulthard is confident Räikkönen is in the right mood to produce a competitive season.
“When I first heard I was sceptical,” Coulthard told BBC Sport. “Then I did an event with him, Sebastian Vettel and some other drivers in Austria last year. We were in every type of motor vehicle you could imagine and he was the first on each of them, and last off. He was even tucked up in bed early.
“I think the reason he came back was purely a personal one. He wants to enjoy himself and I don’t think he’s got any greater agenda than that.
“I believe he missed the wheel-to-wheel competition and the buzz it gives you. There is a big difference between setting a great lap time in testing or on a world rally stage and the excitement of sitting on a grid waiting for the lights to go out. Kimi is a racer – that is what he has missed.”
Lotus’ 2011 campaign started well but tailed off badly and Räikkönen’s competitiveness will ultimately come down to that of his E20.
But that has not stopped Coulthard or a host of F1 fans from looking forward to the Finn’s 2012 efforts.
“I think there has been a change in Kimi,” added the Scot. “He arrived in F1 when he was 21, which is very young. He has now had a chance to go away and think about things.
“I know it’s difficult to imagine why an ex-world champion could be the surprise of the season, but I think in this case Kimi could be just that.
“I’ve gone from initially being sceptical to now being an absolute believer in his return. It’s good for Kimi Räikkönen, it’s good for F1 and it should be good for the fans.
“Kimi was released from his contract early to make way for Fernando Alonso at Ferrari. If I’m honest, I think it was a little early for him to leave the sport.
“He is one of the most naturally gifted drivers. He could go from being asleep just before qualifying to delivering a lap that made your jaw drop. It was just incredible to watch.
“If Lotus give him the space to be himself, which is a happy racing driver who isn’t required to get bogged down doing things he doesn’t enjoy doing, I think he could be better in his second career than he was in his first.”
On Lotus’ hopes, Coulthard added: “Lotus have shown good form in testing but we won’t know if that was showboating for sponsors or genuine pace until we get to Melbourne.
“What I do know is that Lotus have a winning DNA. They are a championship-winning team – having won world titles in their previous guises as Benetton and Renault – so I see no reason why they can’t get back to being competitive.
“Can they really challenge Red Bull, McLaren, Ferrari and Mercedes? It’s difficult to imagine at this moment in time but let’s wait and see.”