The biggest rivalry of the Formula One season might be found on the same team, with former world champions Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen racing with and against each other for Ferrari.
Both have pledged to work together, although their competitive instincts may take over sooner rather than later.
Raikkonen’s return to Ferrari surprised many observers. He quit the team on bad terms at the end of the 2009 season, despite winning the F1 title two years earlier. He can match Alonso in terms of driving ability, but Alonso has been Ferrari’s No. 1 since Raikkonen left.
“There is a lot of talk outside about problems, but inside the team we have a very good feeling,” Raikkonen said. “It doesn’t matter who is your teammate. But for sure we have respect for each other and obviously we both try to come out on top.”
Alonso, the 2005 and ’06 champion, has won 32 races, compared to 20 for the 34-year-old Raikkonen, and he insists he is committed to the greater cause of knocking Red Bull driver Sebastian Vettel off his perch.
“We will follow wherever the team priorities lie and try to do our best to win both championships,” said the 32-year-old Alonso, who has finished second to Vettel in three of the past four championships. “We need to work in perfect harmony and follow what the team priority is.”
It remains to be seen what would happen if they get team orders and one is asked to let the other pass.
And with Vettel still only 26 as he bids for a fifth straight title, time is running out to clinch another one of their own.
One of the key questions is, if Raikkonen starts better in the first few races — the Finnish driver won the season-opening Australian GP last year — how will Alonso, and Ferrari, respond?
Former teammate Felipe Massa was always in Alonso’s shadow. Not so now, and it should be remembered that the Spanish driver also has raw wounds.
His relationship with Ferrari was tense last year, and he was forced to publicly declare his commitment to the team before the Belgian GP following an internal rift. It stemmed from sarcastic comments he made about Ferrari’s underperforming car after the Hungarian GP, leading to a stern rebuke from team principal Stefano Domenicalli.
Ferrari’s terrible inconsistency last season didn’t help matters. Despite making a bright start, during which he won two of the first five GPs, Alonso failed to qualify higher than third for the whole campaign — and managed to do that only four times.
“Everyone is expecting a lot,” Alonso said. “We need to deliver.”
There was some good to come out of Vettel’s total dominance, however.
With the last few races relatively meaningless since Vettel was already out of sight, Ferrari could focus on developing this year’s car and thus gained some valuable time over its rivals.
“Our start on this year’s car was perhaps later than others,” Red Bull team principal Christian Horner said recently.
Rule changes this season have introduced new 1.6-liter V6 turbo hybrid engines with extensive energy-recovery systems. That could hurt Red Bull, which struggled badly in preseason testing, much to Horner’s frustration.
“We have to be optimistic,” Raikkonen said. “We’re in a changeable time now and we have many things coming in F1 with a big regulations change, but I think we are quite well prepared.”
Melbourne could be the first indicator of whether this unexpected partnership will revive the team’s fortunes.
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