It was interesting to see LotusF1 trying different steering rack settings on Kimi Raikkonen’s car on Friday in Malaysia. Technical Director, James Allison, said in a team press release before the race that “Kimi likes to drive with quite a light steering wheel, but one which also has great precision. Our baseline rack is precise, but it’s not light enough for Kimi’s driving style. Our challenge is to produce a hydraulic rack that is more powerful than the current unit, but which sacrifices none of its precision. We have not got there yet, but we will do.”
I mention this because (a) it is quite unusual to have relatively detailed information like this from a current F1 team and (b) because it gives us a little more insight into what comprises the God-given talent that is Kimi Raikkonen.
It’s no surprise that Kimi is finding the initial steering set-up of the E20 to be on the “heavy” side. He is a fingertip driver if ever there was one – and I don’t think you can say that about the 2011 LotusRenault drivers, Vitaly Petrov or Bruno Senna, (although Nick Heidfeld certainly tends towards Kimi’s end of the spectrum) . “Weight” , however, in my view tells just part of the story. Of course Kimi is as fit as the rest of them – certainly in his upper body muscular strength – so I don’t believe that this is a question of Kimi not being able to handle “heavy” steering. On the contrary: his drive in Melbourne, fresh from his two-year lay-off, shows how fit he is already. No, I think this is a question of how Kimi feels the surface of the road. With heavy steering, the shoulders and upper arms come more into play; with lighter steering – providing it is “precise” (as James puts it) – the feel flows much more through the lower arms and hands. Kimi’s initial steering movements are always relatively slow compared with those of many F1 drivers. I remember watching him from overhead in the McLaren at La Rascasse at Monaco in 2006. Compared with his team-mate, Juan Pablo Montoya, Kimi was approximately two metres later with his mid-corner rotation, which is to say that in the initial phase of the corner Kimi had perhaps five degrees of steering lock where Juan had at least 15 degrees. Juan was on the power earlier – but the early power application led to oversteer bobbles on exit. Kimi was travelling faster in the early stage, had a lower minimum speed while he rotated car the car, but a much straighter, flatter exit that he “guided” with easy accuracy.
Criticial to Kimi, then, is his ability to feel the car in that early stage of the corner – to be able to manipulate the car, as if on aut0-pilot, as he floats in towards his minimum speed (rotation) point. The car is losing speed; slip angles are coming into play; and Kimi is managing the forces via brake pedal pressure release and increased steering load. It is an infinitely variable thing from corner to corner, lap to lap. There is no “turn-in” point or fixed apex. The track surface is constantly changing; so is the fuel load, so are the tyres – and so are the precise points, down to a centimetre, at which Kimi brakes and begins his initial, gentle movements.
It looks as though Kimi has found the early-season steering of the E20 to be heavy enough to be able to dampen his feel for that early corner phase. There were fewer messages travelling to his lower arms and hands in the tests and in Melbourne; the emphasis was on musclepower – the enemy of the senses. Kimi, reduced to that, was basically just another F1 driver.
The mechanical job for the team, of course, is to be able to give Kimi the sort of power assistance he needs without taking away any of the feel – and it was with this that they played on Friday at Sepang. I suspect this is a similar situation to Jarno Trulli’s at Team Lotus last year. Jarno’s initial corner movements are very similar to Kimi’s, although in my view Kimi is a much more creative driver than Jarno when it comes to managing, say, understeer.
Of course, this isn’t the only way to drive. What I love about F1 is that every driver is different. For every Kimi, there is a Fernando Alonso.
I haven’t yet seen enough of the re-invented Romain Grosjean from the right vantage points to describe accurately how he uses the pedals and the steering. Early impressions put him pretty near Sebastian Vettel (in terms of style): he has slightly more (and faster) initial steering inputs that Kimi but a lovely feel for eliminating load from the car; an oversteer driver he is not.