Off-track, Monaco usually means one thing: partying. And if there is anyone left in the current breed of Formula One drivers who most closely resembles that greatest of partygoers, James Hunt, it is Kimi Raikkonen.
Traditionally, Monte Carlo is one of his happy hunting grounds this time of year, but even the Finn seems to have fallen in line with the ghost town that the Principality has become. Raikkonen will likely find more traffic on his qualifying laps this afternoon than you might encounter on the main straight and the climb up to Massenet and Casino Square at midnight. Even the usual drunken revellers are nowhere to be seen.
Raikkonen, however, is relatively high-visibility in practice. He seems happy, though with his habitually deadpan expression you'd have to be a genuine mind-reader to be sure.
Let's rewind for a moment. Imagine: you come from humble origins, from Espoo in Finland. You have one overriding passion, driving race cars, and by the grace of God you are prodigiously talented at it. You rise with unprecedented haste direct from Formula Renault to F1 with Sauber-Petronas in 2001, but are almost immediately snapped up by McLaren-Mercedes. In your third season you discover what you have always secretly believed, that you have the ability not only to drive grand prix cars fast, but to win and even to challenge the greatest driver of the era for the world championship.
If Raikkonen has ever been excited by all this, it has been hard to tell. He exudes excitement like comedian Jack Dee. The spiky blond hair, the prepubescent looks and the distinctive morse-code voice are pure Raikkonen trademarks. He was immediately the new monosyllabic arbiter of cool. "The Ice Man". The one most likely to succeed Michael Schumacher.
And they had their battles, Schuey and the Kimster. Only a "re-interpretation" of tyre-wear rules by the FIA saved the title for Schumacher and Ferrari in 2003. In 2005 Raikkonen once again staked a genuine claim, but ill fortune helped swing it in favour of Fernando Alonso and Renault. At the end of 2006 he quit to join Ferrari, replacing Schuey.
At the 11th hour in 2007 he finally delivered, snatching the championship crown from upstart rookie Lewis Hamilton in a topsy-turvy season-ender in Brazil. Some say he even cracked a smile in his hour of triumph.
But in 2008 people were no longer asking whether the Iceman cometh, but whether he was about to go, as he was trounced more often than not by team-mate Felipe Massa. He struggled with his car, and his motivation. Soon it was suggested that he might quit, or even be retired by his team. In the end he stayed, but only after a talking to from charismatic Ferrari chief Luca di Montezemolo.
Truth be told, you'd need a lie detector and a syringe full of scopolamine to detect fully whether the 2009 model Raikkonen is different to the under-achieving also-ran of 2008.
Ferrari's start to the year was... difficult. It took Raikkonen four races just to score points, with a lowly sixth place in Bahrain. In Malaysia television viewers, hoping for a restart in the dreadful conditions, had chuckled as he was captured on camera in his civvies and chomping nonchalantly on a choc ice in the garage, long before the official decision not to run again was taken. But it was a misleading image, for most of the KERS runners had found their cars waterlogged. And because he really is fired up despite Ferrari's problems.
"You know," a close friend imparted this weekend, "in Barcelona people thought Kimi was really pissed off because of the problems which stopped him. But he was an awful lot happier despite not finishing the race, because he said the car felt really good. With the new rear diffuser he had grip again. He was very encouraged."
"Maybe we cannot yet fight for wins," Raikkonen says, "but here we can fight for good points. The world championship may only be a dream this year, after the start we made, but I am still very motivated to win and I am pushing very hard."
Hard enough to eschew the lifestyle that has drawn comparisons with playboy Hunt. The 2009 Raikkonen favours a somewhat Forrest Gump image, with a larger than necessary red cap jammed down so low over his ears that it makes him look simple and needs just a slight skew of angle to render him some sort of Finnish homeboy. But beneath the red overalls he has lost a lot of weight to help optimise his car's weight distribution around the KERS system.
All through practice he was shaving the barriers that await the unwary with the same millimetric precision as Lewis Hamilton or Sebastian Vettel. It is the Raikkonen of old, a winner here in 2005, inspired not just by his relit fire of personal motivation thanks to a car that works properly, but also the pressing need to deliver for the team.
"It's a bit more than a year ago that I won my last race," he says, speaking of Barcelona in 2008. "I had my best ever weekend with Ferrari then. The pole, the win and the fastest lap.
"I've come close since then, on several occasions. I could have won in Montreal, when Lewis ran into the back of me in the pits. I could have won at Magny-Cours until I had a problem with the exhaust. And I could have won at Spa. But things prevented that from happening. But you never lose the hunger to win, and I want that feeling again as soon as possible."
Ferrari must do well here. A win tomorrow might be a dream, but it is a dream to which they must aspire.
"We are still a bit behind," Raikkonen admits, speaking of the changes Ferrari made to their car in Spain. "But it is much better than it was before. And it was more or less what we expected. The problem is that other people have also gone forward. We know this is only the first step for us and that we can get some more speed over the next few races.
"I think for sure that we can catch up, but it always takes time. Definitely we will be able to challenge them, but it may not be tomorrow. We might have to wait for the races later in the year, but I definitely believe that we can fight for wins, podiums and good positions.
"We are getting where we want to be, which is fighting with the guys at the front. As a team we haven't lost anything. We have the same people here who were here, doing the same things they were doing when we were winning. It's just that we seem to make some mistakes and sometimes you make mistakes more easily when you push harder."
Ferrari must do well not just to shore up their fading championship chances, but because off the track, the war between Di Montezemolo and the FIA was escalated last Wednesday by a Parisian court's refusal to allow the Scuderia to exercise a right of technical veto that they were granted by signing an extension to the Concorde Agreement in January 2005. It was inflamed further yesterday when FIA president Max Mosley claimed that no such veto ever existed.
In the current climate, victory would thus not just be timely, but very, very sweet. Revenge on the rocks.
"When you are winning it is always easy," Raikkonen observes. "You can always be safe with certain things. For sure we could have done many things better this year but we are learning from all the things and I am sure we can get back at that level.
"It just seems to take an awful long time but it is not the first time in racing that it happens. We know what we need to do, and like I said, at some point we will get it back and be where we want to be."
This might, however, be his last chance to meet Prince Albert on the podium for a while, if Di Montezemolo really does go through with his threat to withdraw from F1 next year. Raikkonen makes it clear he will follow the team's decision. "We are one team," he growls. "Wherever Ferrari go, I will be. I am 100 percent behind them in whatever decision they take."
My secret life
"People got very excited when I took part in an annual poker boat race in Finland in 2007, dressed in a monkey suit. Our boat even won the award for best-dressed crew. It was just for fun. Later, my friends hired the only 15 monkey suits in Finland and came over to support me at Monza. I signed in as James Hunt, because I always admired what he stood for, and because we have some similarities. Neither of us has time for the politics of the sport. I would love to have raced in the era when he was a big star, back in the Seventies..."Reuse content