'This guy is so strange' – The perfect symmetry of Kimi Raikkonen and Sauber

Not much changes with Kimi, does it?

He makes his F1 debut with Sauber when no one expects it. Then 17 years, a world championship and 20 wins later, he signs off his F1 career but making a surprise return to Hinwil. ‘Symmetry’ and ‘Raikkonen’ are not two words you would expect in the same sentence.

In fact, you could say his first association with the Swiss-based team was a surprise, even to the man in charge. Peter Sauber knew very little about Raikkonen mainly because the 21-year-old Finn had done no more than 23 races — in total.

The first mention came from the late David Robertson, a driver manager with a keen eye and a persuasive line of chat. Not only did the Englishman coax Sauber to consider this young guy who had done amazing things with a slick-shod kart in the wet, he also cajoled Peter to run a three-day test at Mugello.

“I’d never met David Robertson before,” Sauber told me a few years ago. “Let’s just say David was an excellent salesman!

“We had no money and, normally, when you do a test for young drivers then you make a three-day test with six drivers and make it pay. But Robertson told me this guy is very, very special and he needs a car for three days. And, of course, they paid nothing. I still don’t understand why I made this decision!”

Sauber, almost reluctantly, turned up at the Italian track on the second day. Initial impressions were mixed, mainly because they had no common language and Kimi never spoke — not that he would say much in any case.

“But one or two things were very, very special,” noted Sauber. “His body language was so impassive and he gave the impression he’s so totally focused that if he walks to you, he could walk through you. I thought — ‘this guy is so strange’.”

As ever, Kimi would do his talking on the track. But even that was limited through choice. Raikkonen was told to do three or four laps. When these had been completed, he was instructed to do a run of 10 laps. He returned to the pits after four, his neck unable to withstand the strain on this fast, undulating track.

“Can you imagine?” says Sauber. “You get a test with a F1 team and they tell you: ‘Stay out for 10 laps’ And you come back after four. It was not possible for him to keep his head up — but he never spoke about it.

“Late in the day, he knows he’s under scrutiny from me. We give him a set of new tyres and reduce the fuel amount. It was clear the new tyres are worth one second and the fuel is another second. But we didn’t say anything. On the first lap, he was one second faster. On the second lap he was another second faster. Very impressive. I flew home together with Willy [Rampf, Sauber’s technical director] and we decide ‘Let’s sign him’.”

That would turn out to be half the battle. Sauber was being sponsored by Red Bull and their favoured driver, Enrique Bernoldi, had been testing on the same day. Dr Helmut Marko, Red Bull’s racing advisor, was keen to have the Brazilian in the race seat.

“Bernoldi was not good enough,” recalled Sauber. “But Helmut Marko was so convinced about his own judgement and he told [Red Bull boss] Dietrich Mateschitz that Willy Rampf was cheating and gave Bernoldi more fuel and the wrong tyres to slow him down. Marko played a bad role; really bad. Mateschitz believed everything he was told — but, fortunately, I had a good relationship with Dietrich.”

Good enough to have Raikkonen make his debut in the 2001 Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne, where he qualified 13th, had to be woken from a 30-minute slumber before the start of the race, went on to finish sixth – and then wonder what all the fuss was about.

Nothing changes.