Former F1 world champion Emerson Fittipaldi has suggested that the success of Kimi Raikkonen's return to the top flight will be determined by how he performs in the first sixth months of his relationship with Lotus.
The Finn broke a two-year sojourn in the World Rally Championship to return to F1, and will lead the Enstone-based Lotus (nee Lotus Renault, nee Renault) team as it attempts to redress a disappointing end to 2011. Although it showed strongly in pre-season testing, and then scored successive podium finishes in Australia and Malaysia, the performance of the R31 tailed off as its radical side-exiting exhaust failed to live up to expectation.
With all three of the drivers who raced for it last season, as well as the injured Robert Kubica, overlooked when it came to picking the 2012 line-up, Raikkonen returns to head up a partnership with GP2 Series champion Romain Grosjean, while Marussia refugee Jerome d'Ambrosio waits in the wings as reserve. The Finn has been an enthusiastic visitor to Enstone in recent weeks, and enjoyed a two-day run-out with a 2010-spec machine in Valencia as he attempts to get up to speed before pre-season testing begins in earnest at Jerez in two weeks' time.
However, Fittipaldi, who also represented Lotus in black-and-gold, recognises the task that lies ahead, not just for Raikkonen but for Lotus in general, as they attempt to close the gap on current F1 superpowers Red Bull, McLaren and Ferrari.
“As a very talented driver, [Raikkonen] has the ability to be very fast again, even after two years away,” the Brazilian told Globo
, “but he will have to adapt quickly. The first six months will be crucial for him.”
Like many before him, Fittipaldi's selection as likely world champion comes as no surprise.
“It seems that Sebastian Vettel will be the guy to beat again, since the strong Red Bull project counts on Adrian Newey, who is a genius,” he noted, “But we can't forget that Ferrari and McLaren have very big and competent structures, and excellent drivers, with all the conditions to be at the top.”