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Thursday, March 20, 2003
More focus on Raikkonen

By Dan Knutson

Dan Knutson KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia -- Even in the steamy heat of Malaysia, it's hard to believe that Kimi Raikkonen will lose his cool.

Formula One's "Ice Man" showed his unflustered self-assurance again two weeks ago when he calmly but very decisively fended off a passing move by Michael Schumacher in the Australian Grand Prix.

"The corner wasn't wide enough for two cars so I stayed ahead," Raikkonen said afterward.

But for a pit lane speeding infraction (caused by a software problem in the car) in Australia, Raikkonen may well have won his first Grand Prix.

After his superb performance in Australia, all eyes will be on Raikkonen during this weekend's Malaysian Grand Prix. The same can be said for his West McLaren Mercedes teammate David Coulthard, who won in Australia.

But while this is Coulthard's tenth F1 season, it's hard to believe that Raikkonen is only starting his third season in F1. Back in 2001 at this time, Raikkonen was still under probation because he had to little race car experience before graduating to F1. Last year he had several wheel-to-wheel battles with Schumacher and Juan Pablo Montoya. And he started off this season with a duel with Schumacher's Ferrari in Australia.

One wonders if Raikkonen thought just two short years ago that he'd be racing with F1's elite so soon in his career.

"No, it didn't feel like that when I started racing," he said with a chuckle. "I haven't really thought about it too much. It is just what has happened. And I just try to do my best I can all the time wherever I am, and I have ended up here. Of course when you do start thinking about it, you might start thinking that it has all happened quite quickly."

But, Raikkonen said, the very nature of F1 in its current form limits the number of wheel-to-wheel duels.

It is nice to have a good fight against someone," he said, "but unfortunately F1 is at a level where you don't have many opportunities to have a good battle and to overtake. On some circuits you have a much better chance to overtake than on others. It is difficult in F1, but always fun when it happens."

Raikkonen has savored his battles with Montoya and Schumacher, and he's learned from them.

"You always learn something about the other guy," he said, "and how they race. You can race against them -- it is not like you don't know what they will do. So you go against someone who doesn't make any stupid moves, or try to push you off. They are fair, and that is the most important thing."

Raikkonen failed to finish 11 times in 17 starts last year, and most of those retirements were caused by mechanical failure.

Raikkonen and Schumacher
Raikkonen held off Schumacher in Australia.

"We have a much better car and a more reliable car now," Raikkonen said of the McLaren MP4/17D that he and Coulthard are using at the start of this season. It's a heavily modified version of the 2002 McLaren.

"The biggest change we can make this year is to finish the races, score the points, and then all the rest will come," Raikkonen said. "This year in all respects should be better than last year."

The 2003 MP4/18 will make its race debut sometime in April.

"It's nice to know that if we are behind Ferrari and Williams that we have a new car coming that hopefully will be a lot quicker and that we can be ahead of them," Raikkonen said.

As for his own driving skills, Raikkonen didn't work on one specific area over the winter.

"You can always improve with the experience you get," he said, "and with the mistakes you made, you can work a different way and be better. But there is not one specific point that I need to change."

Now in his second season with McLaren, Raikkonen knows the engineers and crew members and how the team operates.

"I have more experience for sure," he said, "but that doesn't always make you quicker. You need to get all the right things to happen in the race weekend so you can be quick. Especially now with all the rule changes it is going to be difficult to find the best setup at some race tracks."

The Ice Man went straight to Malaysia after the Australian Grand Prix to acclimatize himself to the heat and humidity he will have to cope with this weekend.

"By training in the heat we get our bodies used to performing in the Malaysian environment," he said. "The high temperatures play a considerable role in the race."

Incidentally, he doesn't mind the nickname The Ice Man.

"It doesn't matter what they call me," he said.

This will be Raikkonen's third Malaysian Grand Prix. Mechanical problems knocked him out of the first two races here. That's something he hopes will change this year.

"You only score points when you finish the race," he said. "We should be competitive here against the Williams, but Ferrari is still ahead."

Whatever happens in this weekend's sweltering (or monsoon drenched) race, you can be sure that The Ice Man won't lose his cool.

Dan Knutson covers Formula One for National Speed Sport News and