NASCAR » 20 May 2011
Rookie Raikkonen: out onto the NASCAR stage
Raikkonen's only just out of his rookie year with WRC, but he's putting himself through the newbie process all over again to try out NASCAR. How does a new driver get to grips with the challenges facing him in a new series? Unlike F1 (and even WRC) where drivers get to use state of the art simulators and slightly less advanced PlayStation games to familiarise themselves with the cars and with the tracks they'll be racing on, there's no substitute in NASCAR to just getting in the vehicle and going out there.
"We've sent him a few videos the past couple of years of truck racing at Charlotte," said his new team boss, Kyle Busch. "He'll get a good view of what to expect with the in-car stuff, listening to throttle control, how much you're on the gas and how to race people."
Kimi has already had some track time in a NASCAR Truck, starting with two days of testing at Gresham Motorsports Park and a third at Rockingham, a popular test venue for NASCAR teams from all three national series. Kimi impressed the Kyle Busch Motorsports team with how fast he was able to be, and how quickly he was up to speed.
"He did a great job - he jumped right in the truck and was up to pretty good speed right out of the gate," said Busch. "I got in the truck right after him on the hot tyres and went out there and ran the same lap times as he did. I couldn't go any faster."
Raikkonen's crew chief for Charlotte will be Doug Howe, who saw victory lane at Daytona earlier this year with Michael Waltrip. Busch's own crew chief Eric Phillips worked with Raikkonen at the Gresham and Rockingham tests and said that he had been "really impressed. He did a great job ... When we got to Rockingham, in four laps, he'd run faster than we'd been there testing with Brian [Ickler] or Tayler [Malsam] last year."
"Of all of our NASCAR national series, the Truck Series has the most downforce, but it's also the draggiest", said Truck Series director Wayne Auto, agreeing that it made Trucks a good fit with Raikkonen's career experience of high downforce/high power-to-weight ratio racing. Be he cautioned Raikkonen that no matter how much solo testing a driver does, it barely prepares him for the sensation of driving in traffic with other cars running alongside just millimetres away.
"I think that's going to be his hardest adjustment: What does it feel like, especially for somebody in the Truck Series, when somebody's on that right side," Auton said. "Because if you don't know what it feels like, it will pull you around. And I don't care how great a driver you are ... You can't sit here and tell anybody that. They've got to get that feel for it on the race track," he added. "Kimi Raikkonen is used to having someone on that right side, but it's not pulling that vehicle and tugging on it."
Narain Karthikeyan warned that in his experience, it was as much enemy action as aerodynamic happenstance that caused new drivers to fly off the track: "They bump you off and everything ... They just move you out of the way and then you need to get aggressive and take control."
Many critics of NASCAR like to deride how easy it is to merely "drive around in circles" with no complicated track layouts to learn and develop lines through. But Auton pointed out that the simplicity is deceptive and that oval racing has its own brand of infinite subtlety, just like road courses.
"We go into things like, 'Here's how this race track races compares to other race tracks that you've raced at. You may have been here before, but this turn's a little different. You want to run high here, you want to run low here," he explained. "Learning the line is probably the hardest thing that a rookie can do. Kimi's coming into a race track that's so track sensitive that one lap, it'll be this and the next lap, it's something totally different."
Kyle Busch - being Kyle Busch - takes a plainer, simpler view of things. "As far as the truck goes, it's pretty simple.
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