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
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.”