After a thrilling first three races, the 2017 picture is beginning to form. A heavyweight title fight between Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel – two of the greatest drivers of their generation – seems set to be this year’s pre-eminent storyline.
However, this Mercedes versus Ferrari duel has four key cast members. Valtteri Bottas and Kimi Raikkonen will both hope to wade in on the title fight, yet on the basis of the first three chapters, are likely to play number two roles in their respective teams.
Both, however, will be determined to avoid becoming supporting players. In this regard, Raikkonen seems to have more work to do than Bottas, after the latter claimed a maiden pole in Bahrain and has already claimed two podium finishes this year.
It could even be argued that for Raikkonen, aspirations of 2017 championship glory are already ebbing away and as a result, his season is about the supporting role he needs to play for teammate Vettel.
His team has certainly delivered the machinery this year. The SF70H has shown all the hallmarks of a title winning car so far. It is consistent for its drivers, while being relatively unaffected in turbulent air and is kind to its tyres.
As a result of these factors, Vettel has converted two victories in the first three races and leads Hamilton by seven points in the early standings. Raikkonen meanwhile, is languishing fourth in the standings, with just half of Vettel’s points tally.
By his own admission, Raikkonen’s start to 2017 has been uncomfortably slow.
“To be honest, it takes way too long,” Raikkonen acknowledged in an interview for Motorsport.com. “You know, we’re supposed to get it right straight away, and obviously, we haven’t.
“[There are] a lot of reasons but it didn’t help last race [in China], not driving the first day. At least when you’re going through some issues, you want to get track time.”
This has been an evident flaw in Raikkonen’s armoury since his return to the sport in 2012. When the Finn endures a difficult Friday, he struggles to salvage his weekend more often than most. Citing China specifically is a clear indicator of this. After all, everyone was marooned in the garage on Friday in Shanghi and therefore, everyone was in the same boat.
The result was a fifth place for Raikkonen. While he was compromised by a half-baked Ferrari strategy, he finished a full 42 seconds adrift of Vettel in second, despite being ahead of the German after the early Safety Car.
Ferrari will, of course, have approached this year considering Vettel as their leading title candidate. I can’t help but feel that if Raikkonen was to overturn this ‘running-mate’ status, he had to strike early, particularly given the competitiveness of the package.
Now that the Finn finds himself 34 points adrift of Vettel, Ferrari has an excuse to favour the four-time champion. Sadly for Raikkonen and his army of fans, if he finds himself leading a race with Vettel settled in second place, Ferrari could justifiably switch the positions with the championship in mind.
Raikkonen’s poor early season form has given them a mandate for this. It would be an uncomfortable scenario, but it’s a narrative we have seen dotted throughout Ferrari’s history.
Raikkonen may now already be cast as Vettel’s rear-gunner in 2017, tasked with winning only when his teammate cannot. Ruberns Barichello and Felipe Massa know the role at the Scuderia all too well.