Paris, not quite in the springtime but a place for new beginnings nonetheless. Kimi Raikkonen could have been in Valencia last week, exchanging gunslinger glances with Michael Schumacher. Instead the former Formula One world champion is preparing for his sabbatical as a much-needed, glitzy adornment to a revamped World Rally Championship that is thirsty for the limelight.
The Finn, new Citroë*team-mates and new adversaries met in the French capital to launch a season that opens in the snow of Sweden on Thursday. First, an appropriately chilly photocall in the Place de la Concorde; a miserable drizzle that makes the golden tip of Cleopatra's Needle shine brighter still, well-practised Parisian indifference, even from the couple of attending gendarmes, and a handful of Japanese tourists taking pictures just in case. The drivers shrug off their warm coats, pose in team colours holding boards to promote road safety and try not to shiver. Formula One it is not.
Along one side of the Place, looking down towards the Eiffel Tower, stands the Automobile Club de France, the refined headquarters of the FIA, motor sport's governing body. It promises a welcome respite from the cold. The talking begins upstairs on the first floor in a large, book-lined room that on closer inspection reveals an oddly eclectic collection; Proust and Dan Brown, Ken Follett and Umberto Eco, biographies of Pol Pot and Nelson, and a history of the Waffen SS.
Max Mosley cleared out his desk just three months ago and in his place as world motor racing's overlord is Jean Todt, a diminutive Frenchman who happens to be a one-time rally driver. There is reason to cheer for the WRC, which has had some lean times of late.
"Rallying is strongly implemented in my heart," states Todt. "It's among my priorities. There are lots of things that have to be improved and it is our commitment to make sure they are improved."
This year sees a refreshed championship of 13 rounds, with new venues in Istanbul, Auckland and France before its hectic autumn finale tearing across Wales. And new drivers. The colourful Californian Ken Block is a former snowboarder and US rally competitor, as well as being a successful businessman who has made a fortune through sports shoes. Then there is Raikkonen, the cool, reserved Finn, the Iceman, and the centre of attention in Paris, more so than Sébastian Loeb, the six-times world champion and ultimate rallier. The two pose together and the cameramen jostle to capture the moment.
"It is the biggest challenge in my racing career," says Raikkonen later, his voice low, his lengthening hair curling from beneath the omnipresent sponsor's hat. "It is something I always wanted to try."
Opinion among motor sports' cognoscenti has it that this will be a year-long diversion for Raikkonen – a return to Red Bull, his rally sponsors, has been touted – regardless of the cloud under which he departed Ferrari. But when he packed away those famous red overalls, amid speculation over what other drives had been open to him, or not, it struck a sad end to a nine-year affair that had established his driving reputation, secured him a world championship in 2007 and made him a rich man. "I do it for one year, then we see," he says of rallying, a sport that occupies a special place in Finnish affections.
At the end of last season, Raikkonen gave voice to his disillusionment with Formula One and the need to find a new challenge to inspire him. "In F1 too many things overshadow the racing," he said then. "There is too much politics. In Formula One too many unpleasant things are happening now."
Raikkonen wants to fall in love with driving again and rallying offers a diverse environment in which to rediscover his passion. "This is different," says the 30-year-old, who as the junior man on the circuit will drive for the Citroë*Junior team.
"There are so many more things to deal with in rallying. In F1 you go to the same circuits, lap by lap. The rally goes to completely different places – so many things can change, the surfaces, everything day to day. It's very different. It's different when you are driving against yourself – in F1 you drive against each other, here you drive against the clock. The speed is not so much but in other ways it is much more difficult."
He drove one rally last year and last week competed in the Arctic Rally, where he survived one crash to create a positive impression despite finishing down the field, well adrift of another Citroë*driver, the Spaniard Dani Sordo.
His aims for the coming season, in which he will compete in all but the New Zealand event, are limited. "I have to try and learn things, see what happens," he says. "It would be great [to get on the podium] but you have to wait and see. I really don't know what to expect. Hopefully later in the season, when I have more experience, I will start to get faster and challenge more. It is early days. I am still feeling my way."
The Arctic event in Lapland gave him an idea of just where he is, and where he needs to get to. "I haven't really had a good feeling with the car so far. There are so many areas I need to improve on. I was pretty happy in the end just to get used to it. [In Sweden] the aim is to not make too many mistakes and then see where we are. Really, I can just do my best – 10th place would be fine."
It is all a far cry from the dollar-drenched pits of Formula One. Raikkonen was reported to be the best-paid driver on the circuit at Ferrari, although he is receiving most of his Formula One salary this year as well as backing from Red Bull, so he and his wife, a former Miss Scandinavia, will not be heading for the Pound Shop quite yet.
But the world he will inhabit for the next year is markedly different – a Formula One car costs around £4.5m, a World Rally one around £600,000 – and he has already encountered one upside. "The other drivers are very nice, much more open than in Formula One – very helpful," says Raikkonen. "There is more warmth here. It is more relaxed. More fun? That depends what you like doing."
Raikkonen, for all his carefully modest ambitions, likes winning and while he is very much the support act to the brilliantly consistent Loeb ("The motivation is still strong," asserts the Frenchman) and Sordo, one of the sport's rising stars, there remains an expectation of a former world champion.
"First we must let him have time to learn," says Olivier Quesnel, Citroën's principal. "He is of the same mind. But after the first half of the season, we will not be surprised to see Kimi on the podium."
Raikkonen has bowed out of Formula One just as it appears things might be getting interesting with the return of a certain German But there are no regrets, at least not in public, instead a shrug of the shoulders conjures an insouciance worthy of the city in which he sits. "For me it does not matter," he says. "I do not follow it closely – I just read it in the papers like you."
All change: Career moves
*Rebecca Rromero A world champion rower in 2005, Romero took up track cycling in 2006, and won a gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
*Nelson Piquet Jnr Brazilian Formula One driver joined Nascar in the US after being dropped by Renault in the wake of the "crashgate" scandal.
*Clive Allen Former Spurs, Crystal Palace and QPR striker briefly joined NFL Europe franchise the London Monarchs as a field goal-kicker in 1997.
*Jason Robinson One of many league-to-union converts but the most successful. Scored England's only try in their 2003 World Cup victory.
*Jonathan Davies Controversially switched to rugby league in 1989, joining Widnes. Davies represented Great Britain 10 times before reverting back to union in 1995.
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