When Justin Marks announced his Project 91 idea, it turned a lot of heads. One of those was Raikkonen, the 2007 Formula One World Champion. The 42-year old finished runner-up twice and was 3rd in three other seasons. Raikkonen won 21 races and stood on the podium 103 times over the course of his F1 career. With his F1 career coming to a close, the timing for this opportunity could not be better.
Driving for Scuderia Ferrari comes with immense pressure, which Raikkonen understood. He still delivered a title, and the team has not won one since. This opportunity with Project 91 has nowhere near the pressure, but The Iceman relishes the opportunity of a level playing field.
“I think it’s a great opportunity for drivers from Europe,” Raikkonen said. “I think any time there’s an equal chance to win in a series it is nice. I think it’s good, and what I heard when I talked to people about the new car is that it is pretty even with everybody. It’s still a learning phase for all teams with the new car.”
“So far it’s been good. This car is a new generation car. It’s a lot nicer, I guess more or less what I expected. When the tires get hot, you’re sliding around much more. I haven’t driven any race car since the last F1 race, so it’s been fun to be in the car. The team has done a great job, really nice people all around. Hopefully we can get a somewhat good result in the race.”
While the timing is perfect, so too is the place. There may be a lot of recent changes in NASCAR but the “road course ringer” philosophy still exists. This was the plan all along for Kimi, and Watkins Glen is the perfect circuit for him to feel at home inside the car. Formula One raced here for 20 consecutive years (1960-1980) which was then known as the United States Grand Prix. That was well before Raikkonen’s time, but the free-flowing track is so similar to many of the circuits where he spent the majority of his career.
Legendary F1 drivers have won on this circuit. Jimmy Clark, Graham Hill, Jackie Stewart, Niki Lauda, and James Hunt are just a few of the names that have gone to victory lane here. While Kimi would love to add his name to that list, he knows that Sunday’s race is much different.
“I wasn’t looking to race again, but Justin came to my home in Switzerland and convinced me how serious he was about putting together a top-notch program,” Raikkonen said. “This will be fun, but it’s something I will take very seriously. I know how competitive the series is and it will be a big challenge.”
Marks made the trip to Switzerland to meet with Raikkonen because he was his first choice. “Kimi is the driver I first had in mind when we created Project 91. If we were going to launch this thing, we obviously needed somebody relevant globally to set it off,” the team owner said.
“I anticipate after today, when everybody sees this program in the flesh, Kimi has a good race and it looks cool and all that kind of stuff, that conversations (with other drivers) will start ramping up. They’re paying attention to it. They think it’s really, really cool, and they’ve got an interest if their schedules and contracts allow for them to be a part of it.”
In preparation for this race, Raikkonen tested at Virginia International Raceway last week. He spent time in the simulator with Daniel Suarez and has dedicated most of his focus and energy to this venture. Marks envisions this as the perfect start for his Project 91 initiative, to open a door for international race car drivers to come to Cup. His team has put a lot of work into this weekend, led by Darian Grubb, who won the 2011 title as crew chief for Tony Stewart.
“We put together a preparation protocol for Kimi that was pretty extensive,” Marks said. “Just understanding the rules and procedures and how the race is going to go. How to get the most out of the tires and how we get through the race with no penalties, understanding the pit stop procedures, the yellow procedures, wave-around, all that kind of stuff.”
“I think honestly, probably the easiest and simplest part of this whole thing is going to be his rate of adaptation, his aggression, and his speed in the race car because his level of preparation has been impressive to everybody here. He’s been very, very focused. It’s been quite impressive, actually.”
“The challenge is going to be is making sure he understands the race from a procedural standpoint,” Marks stated. “I think that the speed and the race craft and adaptation to the track and the car is not going to be an issue at all. I’m optimistic and I think he’s going to haul ass.”
Daniel Suarez also spent some time with Raikkonen, preparing for this weekend. “I have been trying to learn as much as I can from him because he is an amazing racecar driver. I believe a racecar driver is great not just because of driving, I think it is just everything else around him. How he thinks and how open or closed minded he or she is. He is not just here to have fun, he is here to be a competitor and wants to do well.”
Suarez believes that Kimi will be able to make his way through the field. “I think he is going to be fast. The speed is there, but he doesn’t know all these drivers. He doesn’t know how they race, he doesn’t know how aggressive they are, so that part is going to take a little bit. You can bring the best driver in the world and it is still going to take some time in the racing part.”
Raikkonen is eager to get going at the Glen with practice and qualifying tomorrow. “I think it is great what Justin is doing. I think he came as a very honest and straightforward guy and nobody has promised any big thing. The only thing we can do is do our best and hope we get a good result. You never know, you just never know what will happen.”
Raikkonen is not the only champion making his first Cup start this wekeend. Mike Rockenfeller is making his debut with Spire Motorsports in the No. 77 Chevrolet. The driver known as “Rocky” is a two-time 24 Hours of Le Mans winner, DTM champion, and has ample experience here at the Glen. The veteran sports car driver finished 3rd in the 2006 Six Hours at the Glen race, and also recently drove here in IMSA with Jimmie Johnson and Kamui Kobayashi.
Kimi will also not be the only former F1 driver in Sunday’s race. Daniil Kvyat, who finished 36th for Team Hezeberg last month at Indianapolis, is back for more. The two drivers competed in F1 for six consecutive seasons, and will do battle once again this weekend in upstate New York. Team Hezeberg ran Jacques Villeneuve in the season-opening Daytona 500, where he finished 22nd after starting in 40th position. Villeneuve won 11 races and earned 23 podium finishes during his decade in Formula One.
Raikkonen holds the record for the most career starts in Formula One. On Sunday, he makes his first Cup start with a team that has been outperforming expectations all year.