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Raikkonen finds Nationwide tough going

29 May 2011

Kimi Raikkonen might be known as the Iceman, but his cool evaporated pretty early on during the Saturday Top Gear 300, his introduction to the NASCAR Nationwide Series.

The Finn seemed to particularly struggle with the heat and humidity of the afternoon heat in Charlotte, asking repeatedly for additional water bottles to be handed to him at pit stops and at one point sounding almost on the verge of panic when a full bottle didn't materialise before he had to leave his pit box.

"I need my drinking bottle," he radioed at one stop, then realised he had to crank up the demands to get some attention from the pit crew busy carrying out their pre-drilled roles. Soon after returning to the track, he was back on the radio: "I'm out of the drink again. I don't know. It's so small. I'm out again. [You have] to make sure it's completely full, because it is too small."

It didn't help when a fumble at the pit stop meant Raikkonen got back a mostly-empty water bottle instead of a refilled one during the stop under yellow on lap 74.

The situation wasn't improved by the heat pouring through the floor of the #87, a typical 'feature' of Nationwide cars. Raikkonen's boots were from his F1 and WRC days, after Kimi had opted not to fit the heavy duty heat shields that experienced NASCAR drivers know to put in as he hadn't found the heat an issue during last week's Truck Series race.

He radioed his crew to say that his feet were "burning" and at one point suggested in frustration that "maybe I put my foot out the window" to cool it down. Finally he settled on "[I'll] just try to keep my foot off the floor and hold them up."

Not that you'd have heard many of his comments about the heat or the water situation on the telecast, since his language was - let's just say, free-flowing. "My leg are burning inside the cockpit because it's so f***ing hot!" was an early sample.

And the F-word was much in evidence when describing how his car was handling as the race wore on, saying that he was having real trouble turning it through the corner. "You have to make the car better. It's unbelievable how bad it is," he said - rather missing the point that in NASCAR, the pit crew needs accurate feedback and instructions from the driver to know how to proceed, unlike the telemetry-driven world of F1 where the engineers have an answer for the driver before he ever gets back into the pits.

For all the complaints and issues - which were pretty standard NASCAR fare really, as anyone who has ever listened to Kyle Busch rampage about his car during a race on his way to another win will know - Raikkonen was actually doing rather well, circulating in a stable 15-20th position on the lead lap

Unfortunately Kimi then got a speeding penalty after his first green flag pit stop on lap 142, which meant a drive-thru that would drop him off the lead lap.

Shortly afterwards, Raikkonen managed to run over some debris on the track (the front splitter of Jeremy Clements' car, which had just fallen off the #51) that lodged under the front of his own car and required him to come in under green for the pit crew to wrench it out. That put him even further behind and damaged the front splitter of his own car, which meant that the car's handling and speed was even further compromised - but at least the pit crew got the full water bottle to him this time.

By the end of the night, Raikkonen had also scrapped half the paint off the right hand side of the #87 by getting too close to the outside wall on a number of occasions. By the final laps he was clearly not trying too hard, just circulating and trying to stay out of the way, encouraged by the pit crew to simply bring it home.

"I was just driving around to finish the race ... just trying to survive through the corners, and it's not so much fun," he admitted afterwards.

"At the beginning I thought we had a good car ... I could overtake on the restarts, and it felt really good when it turned. But it turned out to be really bad, the handling. It felt I had to stop in the corner, just pushing all the time," he said. "Over halfway the car was tight, and I hit the wall three times. Then it just didn't work at all."

"The front-running guys [Kyle, Carl Edwards and Kevin Harvick] are saying the exact same thing," his crew chief Rick Ren agreed. "These things just do not handle very well."

Had the whole gruelling experience put him off NASCAR for a good while to some? While it might not have been a dream start in Nationwide, most observers felt that actually he'd gone pretty well for someone who hadn't even seen the inside of one of these cars until the previous day's practice. He'd made it to the end, and 27th place was still two in front of his car owner Joe Nemechek who finished in 29th place after engine problems. (Full results are available here.)

"Kimi did a great job," said Rick Ren. "I call it a success. The results don't really show how good he really did. If you look at the finishing order, guys in 10th-12th - we ran ahead of them a good lick of the day. I think it was all positive. No negatives out of it ... There was no doubt he was a top 15 guy again."

As ever, Kimi was non-committal about his NASCAR plans. "Now I'll go back to Europe, and do a few rallies, and see what happens," he said. "I don't know when I will be back. I have a rally in Greece and some other rallies."

"It's up to him to decide if he wants to come do this again," said Rick Ren, who is also general manager for Kyle Busch Motorsports. "Hopefully, we did our part, and it was a pleasant experience for him." However, he added it was unlikely that KBM could or would be involved in putting together a Sprint Cup outing for Raikkonen at Sonoma, if that should be Kimi's next step.

Earlier, Raikkonen has been at pains to address the issue that Kyle Busch had raised about payments due for his NASCAR experience.

Busch had said on Thursday that "The contract states we're supposed to receive so much, and we have not. We've only received enough for these two races," adding that "It's either up to Kimi or to the financial people that run Kimi's business side of things and decide they need to find the sponsorship funds in order to carry the experience for him further."

KBM supplied the vehicle and crew for Raikkonen's Camping World Truck Series outing last week at Charlotte, and put together the deal with Joe Nemechek's NEMCO Motorsports to put the former F1 world champion into the #87 in the Nationwide Series.

Raikkonen responded on Saturday that he was all paid up and that Busch was under a misapprehension.

"It's a situation we paid," Raikkonen said after qualifying on Saturday afternoon. "Who knows if we want to do more." Referring to his WRC deal, he added: "I have other things to do."

His US manager Todd Hirschfeld concurred: "It was taken out of context. Kimi doesn't know what he wants to do, but everything so far has been paid for."

For KBM, Rick Ren agreed: "Reports circulating that Kimi has not paid for the races he is running at KBM are untrue," he said. "As Kyle indicated Thursday, we have received payments from Kimi for both last week's truck race and today's Nationwide Series race ... When Kyle stated that the payment schedule has changed, he was referring to plans for future Truck races for Kimi at KBM."

Kimi Raikkonen was back in his street clothes 20 minutes after the chequered flag had dropped, heading out of Charlotte and back to Europe. Whether he'll be back anytime soon is anyone's guess. It wouldn't even be accurate to say "only Kimi knows", because clearly he doesn't yet - he needs time to let the whole thing sink in and to figure out whether this whole NASCAR scene is for him or not.

We'll find out in due course, but whatever the decision is, it won't be as much of a shock as it was on that late March morning when we found out that the former F1 champion was heading to NASCAR in the first place. After that, nothing can surprise us about Kimi. Can it?


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