Why Kimi Raikkonen couldn’t say no to a return to racing

When Kimi Raikkonen left Formula 1 for good, many expected it to be the end of his racing career. But the Finn never ruled out new adventures and with his interest piqued by NASCAR, here’s why he couldn’t turn down the opportunity presented by Trackhouse Racing

Kimi Raikkonen, Alfa Romeo Racing

As Kimi Raikkonen walked out of the paddock on Sunday night in Abu Dhabi, it was very clear that he was done with Formula 1.

On Friday, Raikkonen had sat down with Autosport for what was meant to be a quick interview. It overran by around 10 minutes, to the surprise of his Alfa Romeo PRs, as he got a lot of frustration about F1 off his chest. He called out “fake things” in the series and railed against “all kinds of bullshit that goes around” that he was gladly behind.

PLUS: Why Raikkonen won't miss F1

We knew it would be the last we saw of Kimi Raikkonen in F1. But would it be the last we saw of him in motorsport altogether? “Very easily,” was his reply when that question was put to him. “If there’s something that makes sense, then why not do it? But for sure, I first need to have some time off.”

The time off Raikkonen craved will ultimately total nine months before he makes his return to competitive racing in the NASCAR Cup Series race at Watkins Glen at the end of August, as announced on Thursday.

Raikkonen will join up with Trackhouse Racing for the road course event at Watkins Glen, being the first signing for its ‘Project91’ initiative that looks to give major international racing drivers a taste of NASCAR. It won’t be Raikkonen’s first rodeo in NASCAR, having driven in one Xfinity Series and one Truck Series race back in 2011 during his time away from F1. But it will be the first chance to see what kind of competitor post-F1 Kimi is like.

Any deal for Raikkonen return to racing was always going to have to accommodate Raikkonen’s family-first life now. The fact this is a one-off race meant it “made sense for all of us as a family”, according to Raikkonen. But it also offered something very different that would not require tons of preparation or testing.

The plan is to get at least one test in the next-gen Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 ahead of the race, as well as some simulator running, but it will generally offer Raikkonen the kind of raw racing experience he has always enjoyed the most.

Early contact was made between Raikkonen and Trackhouse owner Justin Marks towards the end of last year, but accelerated in recent weeks. Marks made the trip over to visit Raikkonen and his family in Switzerland to talk him through the opportunity and “sold the whole thing to me well”, according to the Finn, who would surely have appreciated the human touch involved.

Raikkonen hasn’t been that far from racing since leaving F1, retaining an interest in motorsport through his motocross team. Yet it didn’t quite satisfy the competitor in him, admitting he is “too slow” beyond a club level.

“Racing has always been nice,” Raikkonen said. “It doesn’t matter what it is, if it’s F1 or other categories. Obviously the F1 story is behind me, and this [NASCAR chance] came up, and it made a lot of sense in a lot of ways.

“I think without the experience there and a few races, one in the Truck and one in Nationwide, I probably wouldn’t be that interested. That was obviously on an oval, this is now on a road course. I’m looking forward to it, to having good, close racing, and on the road course, maybe have some chance at least to maybe do something.”

Project91 is all about getting in the big-name international drivers to give NASCAR a go, and has succeeded in doing exactly that by getting Raikkonen on the grid

Watkins Glen is an ideal track for Raikkonen to race at, given the majority of the calendar is oval-based. Although Raikkonen is doubtful his decades of experience in F1 will give him much of an edge, given his lack of knowledge of the car, Marks felt the next-gen model introduced this year is much easier for drivers to jump into.

“We’ve got a car now that doesn’t require real specific stock car racing knowledge to make it go fast, which is why I think a guy like Kimi can come in and go fast right away, and have a real shot at doing something in that race,” said Marks, who took over Chip Ganassi's NASCAR team last year.

“That’s what this car is all about, that’s what the promise of the new car is about, and that’s why we really launched Project91: the guys can come in, the ones who have always had an interest in NASCAR, and be fast right away.”

Justin Marks alongside Chip Ganassi at the team's launch last year

Justin Marks alongside Chip Ganassi at the team's launch last year

Photo by: Trackhouse Racing Team

Raikkonen admitted there were opportunities for him to race earlier this year, but he was eager to take the proper time to plan out the project and his preparations.

“I think it was better to wait until this race, so we can prepare for everything and at least have done the work 100% right,” he said. “What the outcome is, nobody knows. We’ll at least give ourself the best chance that we can.”

He may be jumping in the deep end against the NASCAR establishment in the top level of the category, but he clearly wants to give himself the best possible chance. Making up the numbers isn’t an option.

For NASCAR, it is also a big coup, perhaps similar to what Fernando Alonso entering the Indianapolis 500 did for IndyCar back in 2017. Raikkonen’s place on the grid will surely bring droves of European fans to tune in to a NASCAR race for the very first time, eager to see how he gets on and what the championship is like. Project91 is all about getting in the big-name international drivers to give NASCAR a go, and has succeeded in doing exactly that by getting Raikkonen on the grid.

Say Raikkonen jumps in with Trackhouse Chevy and does well. Say he finds that the racing enjoyable as ever, and gives him the motivation to do more. Could we see him cropping up elsewhere in the near future?

“I don’t know, nobody knows,” he admitted. “We’ll try to do a good race there and enjoy it, and see what the future brings. I have no other plans. That’s what I have right now. We’ll go from there.”

It’s a very Raikkonen answer. But to have him back on the racing radar is great news. His love for F1 may have waned towards the end of his time there - “I don’t really miss the hassle” is his current stance - but he remains one of the finest talents of his generation to have graced motorsport.

To see him back behind the wheel is a great story, and if NASCAR can give him the buzz he wants, it may well be just the start of Kimi Raikkonen’s post-F1 racing career.

Raikkonen previously sampled NASCAR in 2011. Could his latest taster tempt him back for more?

Raikkonen previously sampled NASCAR in 2011. Could his latest taster tempt him back for more?

Photo by: Motorsport Images

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