Kimi Raikkonen will be cast into a supporting role for the remainder of the 2008 Formula 1 World Championship campaign if the need arises, Ferrari has acknowledged - as the battle for the drivers' laurels closes inexorably in.

The reigning world champion has endured a torrid time of things for much of the current season, having not now triumphed since the Spanish Grand Prix back in April, struggling most notably to get his act together on Saturday afternoons and trailing team-mate Felipe Massa eight-four in qualifying, with a mere four front row starting spots to his name. Indeed, he has registered just 28 points since his last success in Barcelona, compared to 46, 50 and 36 for title rivals Massa, Lewis Hamilton and Robert Kubica respectively.

That has prompted numerous suggestions that the 17-time grand prix-winner has lost both motivation and interest in defending his hard-fought crown, as well as claims that he may choose to walk away from the grand prix paddock at the end of the year, before he has even reached 30-years-old

'Kimi goes flat-out only at night', slated major German publication Bild in the wake of yet another lacklustre performance in Valencia last weekend, in barely-concealed reference to Raikkonen's predilection for partying rather than working. Whilst Massa prepared for the European Grand Prix in a team simulator, the newspaper asserts, his team-mate enjoyed three consecutive nights out with friends in Ibiza.

'The Finn is a problem,' added Italian daily Gazzetta dello Sport. 'Ferrari has to make a decision now.'

'Ferrari has its new number one,' agreed Corriere dello Sport.

The Scuderia's team chief Stefano Domenicali, however, has sprung to the Finn's defence, insisting that his laidback nature is not harming his performances - whilst confirming that should he be requested to, Raikkonen will back Massa's burgeoning championship challenge.

"If he has to, Kimi will help Felipe, as we said at the beginning of the year," the Italian confessed in an interview with Italy's Gazzetta dello Sport, "but first, let's see how things evolve.

"I have never forced matters of a personal nature with him, but I don't think his way of preparing for a grand prix has anything to do with the current situation.

"His contract expires only at the end of next year, so we do not have any hurry to decide. Right now we are concentrated on the title."

"Kimi is a fierce competitor," concurred McLaren team principal Ron Dennis on the subject of his former charge. "[He is] a highly talented racing driver, and I wouldn't levy any criticism at him at all."

The man from Espoo entered the 2008 campaign as most observers' favourites to retain his title, but he currently languishes six points adrift of the considerably lower-paid Massa in the drivers' standings, and 13 in arrears of McLaren-Mercedes' pace-setter Hamilton.

That said, his favourite circuit on the F1 calendar is next up - Spa-Francorchamps, home to the Belgian Grand Prix - with Raikkonen the race's defending three-time winner and, he makes it clear, decidedly intent on adding a fourth trophy to that roll next weekend.

"One third of the season is still left, and it's enough to fight back," he asserted, underlining that his desire remains firmly intact. "Obviously there has been a lot of talk about my qualifying problems, but in Hungary I just went wide on my last lap of Q3. Without that we would easily have been third.

"It does seem that the street circuits haven't been favourable to me. In four races I've only claimed one point - in Melbourne - in a race I didn't manage to finish because of an engine failure.

"Then there was the incident with [Adrian] Sutil in Monaco and Hamilton crashing into me at the exit to the pit-lane in Montreal, and now the latest retirement in Valencia."

Massa, for his part, has refused to write his team-mate off, insisting that he will not ask to be made de facto number one at Maranello for the balance of the season, urging in an interview with German newspaper FAZ: "Kimi is very fast, but so am I. I think we will fight for the title to the very end."

The Brazilian has also moved to stress that he hopes Ferrari's recent engine problems - with Raikkonen's V8 blowing spectacularly in Valencia, just three weeks after his own catastrophic failure almost within sight of the chequered flag in Hungary - will rapidly be a thing of the past, with a near-identical broken conrod having been found to be the guilty party in both incidences.

Massa's F2008 was equipped with a fresh powerplant in the Spanish city, containing a conrod component supplied by a third party that was not from the same bad batch.

"Now the batch of 'cursed' conrods is no longer being used and we have instigated very close controls on the parts we are using, I hope the problem has gone away for both of us," the 27-year-old explained, admitting that Ferrari had elected to take a risk with Raikkonen's engine in Valencia rather than replace it and receive a ten-place grid penalty.

"The failure will not be repeated," Domenicali echoed, quoted in Gazzetta dello Sport.

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