A year ago, one of the big talking points heading into Austin was the absence of Kimi Raikkonen from the grid. The veteran opted to miss the final two Grands Prix of 2013 to undergo back surgery.
So his place at Lotus wasn’t taken by reserve driver Davide Valsecchi as was possible, but provided an opportunity for one of Raikkonen’s Finnish countrymen – veteran Heikki Kovalainen – to fill in instead.
While Kovalainen underachieved and failed to score points, this race last year marked the breakout Grand Prix for the full-time freshman Finn: Valtteri Bottas.
Bottas qualified ninth and ended eighth, and while that doesn’t sound like much on its own, consider the fortunes of where Williams was this time 12 months ago.
They still had the Renault engines; Pastor Maldonado was sulking through the weekend; and the car was perhaps the seventh or eighth best chassis on the grid, depending on the circuit.
Bottas made it to Q3, and then in the race turned in the move of the race with a brilliant pass of Esteban Gutierrez in the Sauber on the outside of Turn 2. He then held off Nico Rosberg’s advances in the superior Mercedes for eighth place and four points, which were Bottas’ first of his F1 career and easily the best result of the year for Williams.
Flash forward 12 months and Bottas sits fourth in the World Championship – immediately ahead of three World Champions Sebastian Vettel, Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button – on the strength of 14 scores from 16 races, including 5 podium finishes. Coupled with the new Mercedes power unit, Bottas has been one of the stars of the year.
Contrast that with Raikkonen, who will make his Austin return this weekend for Ferrari, and has languished through a miserable season. He hasn’t come to grips with the Ferrari; he’s only got one top-five start and one top-five finish apiece this year; and he currently sits 12th in the World Championship.
This was meant to be the year of Raikkonen and Alonso spearheading Ferrari’s resurgence and move to the front, but the car hasn’t been there as the team itself has gone through so much change and upheaval on the management side.
Oddly, despite the struggles, Raikkonen finds himself in a stronger position with Ferrari now than even a few months ago. While Alonso’s future has been all the talk, Raikkonen has been almost under the radar entirely and is all set for another season next year where the Kimi magic of old could return.
And while Bottas is the Finn you’d expect to do well this weekend, it’s Raikkonen who could now adopt the Bottas’ giant-killing role if he outperforms the machinery level.
A fascinating Finnish subplot we failed to foresee a year ago. Or, it just shows how much things can change in F1.