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Keep working at it, Montoya tells Kimi

17 May 2011

The news of Kimi Raikkonen's try-out in NASCAR in the Camping World Truck Series first broke almost two months ago: and even after all this time, it still sounds like a bit of a huge April Fool's Day joke.

But on Friday, May 20 it becomes a reality as 2007 F1 world champion Kimi Raikkonen heads out onto Charlotte Motor Speedway to make his NASCAR series debut with the Kyle Busch Motorsports team.

The one current NASCAR Sprint Cup driver who has any idea of what's in store for Raikkonen is the driver who made a similar transition from the glamorous world of F1 to the more down-to-earth scene of American stock car racing - his former McLaren team mate Juan Pablo Montoya.

So what advice can the Colombian offer the new arrival from Finland?

"Keep working at it and listen to the advice people give you," says Montoya. "Ask questions and spend as much time behind the wheel, getting seat time, as you can."

Montoya knows what he's talking about: NASCAR hasn't come easy for him since he arrived in the series in 2007 after becoming disenchanted with the world of F1. He won the Sonoma road race in his rookie year and has since had three top-five and six top-10 finishes, and even become the first non-American to make it into the Chase at the end of the 2009 regular season. But oval victories and a Sprint Cup title still seem very far off for him.

"It'll be a tough transition but if he dedicates his time to [NASCAR], he should be okay," said Montoya. "He'll adjust after some time ... It's a big transition all around and just one of those things he'll need to get used to.

"He's a great race car driver but he'll need to learn to take care of his equipment in NASCAR. I know he likes to drive his cars hard and you can't do that over here."

Despite the fact that Montoya and Raikkonen entered F1 in the same year - 2001 - they came from very different backgrounds even then. Montoya had battled his way up through the US racing scene and won the Indy 500 race and the CART series title before moving to F1 as a very proven winner; Raikkonen on the other hand emerged out of nowhere, a karting star with unproven senior formula experience who needed special dispensation from the FIA to get a super-license to join Sauber. Within a year he had made a splash on the track and been snapped up by McLaren as "the next big thing", duly going on to win the world title with Ferrari in 2007 - something Montoya himself never did.

So what does Montoya think about Raikkonen's decision to try his hand at NASCAR Trucks?

"I think that it's cool that he's coming over to NASCAR. He's a cool guy and I think he will fit right in," he says, before offering a word of caution. "[But] my first choice wouldn't have been Charlotte [for a debut.] That's a tough track in general. I would've picked Talladega or Daytona before Charlotte."

Raikkonen will be under pressure straight away at Charlotte, with qualification carrying with it the potential for a very embarrassing public failure.

The news about Kimi's switch to NASCAR still leaves experienced motor sports journalists shaking their heads in wonder, not least because the US scene is notorious for the amount of media work required of its drivers who become almost full time corporate spokespeople for their sponsors.

"Both [Montoya and Raikkonen] suffer from lockjaw when it comes to the press, and neither is a fun interview," said Bob Varsha, longtime voice of F1 on the US sports channel SPEED, commenting on his scepticism about Raikkonen's decision to come to NASCAR. "I still find it odd, because he is such a reserved guy and hated dealing with the press in F1. That supposedly was one of his motivations for leaving the sport after winning the world championship.

"If Kimi knows anything about NASCAR, he knows NASCAR drivers are almost compelled to be gregarious, fan-friendly, work with the press and so on, which is completely unlike the Kimi those of us who have been involved with his career in F1 know."

One thing that's perceived to have held Montoya back in NASCAR is his difficulty in "playing nicely with others", as the sport often relies on on- and off-track alliances and partnerships. Montoya's still seen as very much something of a lone wolf, and Raikkonen could find himself in a similar situation.

"He was nicknamed 'Ice Man' when he raced in F1 so if that tells you anything!" laughs Montoya.

"Both are recognised as being incredibly brave and fast, said SPEED's Varsha. "But the key with both men is that neither enjoyed a reputation as either a team player or a technically astute driver ... If the car works as they need it to, they succeed. If it doesn't, working with the engineers to make it better was never something that seemed to interest them."

In the meantime, Kimi has been busy making sure that his "day job" over in the World Rally Championship doesn't feel unloved and unwanted by all the attention buzzing around his NASCAR debut.

"I wouldn't be doing any of the racing if it clashed with anything which I'm doing in the WRC," he emphasised to the WRC series website. "The races have been picked because they fit around the rallies I'm doing. It doesn't matter where I am when I'm not on the rallies."

Raikkonen, who recently finished sixth on Rally Jordan, says he's looking forward to his next WRC appearance, at the Acropolis Rally of Greece from 16-19 June. "The driving has been better and we're pushing harder now. My only target really is to improve in the WRC."

Meanwhile it looks like Raikkonen's NASCAR excursion might be starting a trend. His Finnish compatriot Mika Salo has reportedly told the Turun Sanomat (the same paper that broke the story of Kimi heading Stateside in March) newspaper that he's also set to try his hand at the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series.

"This year it is finally happening," the 44-year-old former Ferrari and Toyota driver is quoted as having told the Finnish publication, adding that he will make his series debut in July.

Another former F1 driver, Nelson Piquet Jr., has also been racing in the Truck Series since 2010 and in the last race took his best result so far with second at Nashville driving with Kevin Harvick Incorporated.


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