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Zehnder exclusive: Raikkonen had 'massive physical problems' before his F1 career

Alfa Romeo Sporting Director Beat Zehnder has reflected on the early days of Kimi Raikkonen's career with Sauber, as the Finn's time in the sport has ended after 20 years.

Kimi Raikkonen walked off into the sunset after 20 years of racing in Formula 1 at the recent Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, calling time on an illustrious career that saw him race at McLaren, Ferrari, and Lotus, as well as two stints book-ending his career racing with the Sauber (now Alfa Romeo) team. Beat Zehnder, Sporting Director, has worked with Sauber for 30 years and reflected on the very early days of Raikkonen's F1 career as the precocious Finn caught the eye of team boss Peter Sauber - to the extent that Raikkonen was given a test in late 2000 at the demanding Mugello Circuit alongside regular race driver Pedro Diniz. "He was testing alongside Pedro Diniz and he was, pretty soon, at the same lap time level," Zehnder told RacingNews365.com in an exclusive interview. "And he had massive physical problems. Mugello is not the best track for a rookie to start testing, because it's physically very demanding. "Kimi had massive problems. He couldn't hold his neck up after three laps, so we did a three-lap stint, 15 minutes break, three-lap stint. "Josef [Leberer, Sauber physio] was doing the massage always in between, and quite soon, it was apparent that he's a talent."

Getting Raikkonen ready for 2001

Raikkonen's performance was eye-catching to the point where Sauber immediately wanted to sign him for 2001. "Immediately after the test, we said, 'Let's try it'," Zehnder commented. "We had some obstacles, like no Super Licence. And Peter [Sauber] had to convince all the Team Principals, the FIA and Bernie [Ecclestone], and we had some Team Principals like Ron Dennis at McLaren at the time, who was completely against it." Ironically, Dennis would sign Raikkonen just one year later, to replace the departing Mika Hakkinen at McLaren, but Zehnder said the McLaren team boss was initially very skeptical of Raikkonen's inexperience. "He was completely against it and said it was going to completely destroy the driver market if you bring young kids into F1 who aren't experienced," added Zehnder. "Kimi had 23 Formula Renault races so he jumped two or three series. Thanks to Peter, he got the licence and, thanks to Josef, he was capable of driving a Formula 1 car from a physical perspective." The first challenge was to get Raikkonen up to physical standard, a task that Raikkonen wasn't particularly happy about. "After the test, we asked Kimi to spend a month with Josef in the Austrian Alps," Zehnder explained. "Kimi was furious because he wanted to go back to Finland. "We said, 'No, no, if you want to be a Formula 1 driver we have to work with you'. And for the first two days, he didn't talk to Josef - he was so angry!" The article continues below the image...

An infamous debut

Raikkonen would score a point, his very first, in the opening race of 2001 as he finished in sixth place - points only covering the top six in those days. But Raikkonen's off-track antics that weekend have become as famous as that points place, due to the first signs of his 'Iceman' nature. "10 minutes before [the] pit lane opened for reconnaissance, no one could find Kimi," Zehnder laughed. "We were looking at the toilets, we were looking everywhere, and he was just not there. We had a catering table in the driver's room with a blanket and he was underneath the table, sleeping! "We said, 'Kimi, Kimi, in 10 minutes you have to go out for your first race!' Then he said, 'Give me another three minutes!'. "So he was such a cool kid already. Then he actually finished seventh in the race and then we protested [Oliver] Panis overtaking under yellow [flags]. "It took ages until the FIA found the footage; it took quite a long time to get the footage. Kimi was already in the hotel. We called him and said, 'Mate, very first race you finished sixth - your very first championship point!' "And his answer was, 'There's still five in front of me!' This is his attitude. He is a very special person."

A contented farewell

With Raikkonen given a big send-off by the Sauber/Alfa Romeo team ahead of his final races, Zehnder reflected on his own relationship with the 2007 World Champion. "The thing between Kimi and me was that we never bullshitted each other. We never lied to each other, we have been brutally open always," he explained. "The first year when he didn't follow the team's ideas... he is his own character. He hated PR events already back then, he would try to sneak out of PR events and interviews and, sometimes, you had to tell him what to do. "At that time, when we were refuelling the cars, I always knew how much fuel level McLaren had. Later, we had to declare the fuel level for the race but, before, it was a mystery who was running what fuel level. I always knew what fuel level Kimi was running, he knew what we were running, but we never leaked information out." Raikkonen would depart Sauber at the end of 2001 to join McLaren, having put in a single season with the, at best, midfield team which had fought so hard to give him the chance to make it into Formula 1. Zehnder revealed that team boss Peter Sauber elected not to try fighting McLaren to keep his talent restrained at Sauber. "He [Kimi] wrote Peter Sauber a letter that he wants to leave. Full stop," Zehnder said. "If you have a driver who is not happy to stay... he would have been happy to stay in the team but, obviously, if you have an offer from a World Championship team... Peter said he'd rather let him go than keep him and have an unmotivated Kimi in the team. An unmotivated Kimi is not nice to work with!" With Raikkonen's final race now behind him, Zehnder believes his personal relationship with Raikkonen will continue. He added: "An era has come to an end. Kimi will, as far as I know, stay in Switzerland. They're comfortable there, the children are going to school there. He's not far away from where I live and I'm pretty sure we'll meet up every now and then."

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