Daniel Ricciardo’s defection to Renault next season after a decade with Red Bull has grabbed a lot of headlines as Formula One heads for the off-season – but there is another big story concerning a driver heading for pastures new, or rather old.
Kimi Raikkonen‘s reunion with Sauber is one of the most anticipated storylines ahead of the 2019 season.
The flying Finn, 39, is leaving Ferrari after eight years – spread over two stints – and heads back to where it all began for him in F1.
Raikkonen finished 10th with Red Bull Sauber Petronas as a starry-eyed 22-year-old rookie in 2001, carrying only 23 car races under his belt, before moving on to McLaren the following year.
And the Iceman will get his first taste of life back at the Swiss team a little earlier than expected with team principal Frederic Vasseur confirming Raikkonen will be in the car at next week’s Abu Dhabi Pirelli tyre test.
After five successive seasons with Ferrari, Raikkonen is getting off the Prancing Horse and returning to the team that gave him his debut.
Next week’s two-day Pirelli test provides teams with an opportunity to run in-coming drivers, with McLaren taking the chance to run Carlos Sainz and Lando Norris, while Williams will test out new duo Robert Kubica and George Russell.
Sauber have followed suit, with Raikkonen getting one day in the car – but Ferrari have yet to confirm whether Charles Leclerc (who is moving in the other direction) will get a chance to drive the SF71H.
Raikkonen is looking forward to getting started with his new team, which he joins on a two-year contract.
“I’m pretty sure it’s a much smaller team than where I’ve been now, at Ferrari, but I’m really looking forward to it,” he said.
“It’s going to be different in many ways but the aim is still the same: Do well in the races.
“It’s more pure racing and less the other stuff in there. Hopefully it will turn out to be good for both of us and that’s our aim. I think it’s what we can do, but obviously I might be completely wrong, but we’ll find out.
“I have a good feeling about it and I’m excited to go there. But it’s close to my home which is obviously a bonus.”
Red Bull have yet to confirm whether incoming Pierre Gasly – who replaces Ricciardo – will drive for them at Yas Marina next week, but team boss Christian Horner has stated that the outgoing Australian will not be released from his contract early to link up with his new team.
Three-time Formula 1 world champion Niki Lauda is not attending the 2018 Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix as he continues to recover from a lung transplant.
The 69-year-old had a lung transplant in early August and is currently in rehabilitation after a long stay in hospital.
It had been reported that despite the Mercedes team non-executive chairman’s closest paddock friends claiming Lauda had targeted a comeback for the 2018 season finale, he is in fact not well enough to be in Abu Dhabi.
“He’s doing much better, but he just does not yet have the strength to be here,” Red Bull official Dr Helmut Marko, a close friend of Lauda’s, told the German broadcaster RTL.
Lauda won the F1 drivers’ championship in 1975 and 1977 with Ferrari and again in 1984 with McLaren. In 1976, he was badly burned when he crashed during the German Grand Prix, but returned to racing just six weeks later.
The Austrian posted a message on Mercedes’ social media accounts on Saturday ahead of qualifying for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit to thank everyone for their support congratulate the team on the fifth successive double title success.
“As you all know, I had a rough time from my health point of view and the support I got from all you people on my way was unbelievable and I was out of bed quicker because I felt to be home in a big strong family and friends,” said Lauda.
“The [team’s] achievement of this year – outstanding. Five championships in a row, Lewis again, Bottas right there, we could not have done a better job.
“The important message is I will be there soon and off we go, the pressure comes, for the sixth time.”
Toto Wolff has labelled Ferrari a “formidable competitor” and he is relishing another heated battle between the legendary Italian marque and his Mercedes team in 2019.
Formula One has been crying out for a genuine title battle for a number of seasons and it looked like motor racing fans might genuinely get one this season when the Prancing Horse came flying out of the gate.
Sebastian Vettel won the opening two races in Australia and Bahrain with Lewis Hamilton not tasting success until round four in Azerbaijan.
Vettel won again in Canada and at Silverstone and led the drivers’ championship by eight points from his fierce rival after snatching victory at Hamilton’s home race with the season at the halfway point in July.
But after the mid-season break, Vettel imploded with uncharacteristic and catastrophic errors committed, while Hamilton sparkled.
Vettel has won just one of the last 10 races leading up to the Abu Dhabi finale as the four-time champion was forced to watch Hamilton go above him and join Juan Manuel Fangio on five titles.
Hamilton lifted his fourth trophy in five seasons in Mexico at the end of October and currently holds a 81-point lead over Vettel.
Mercedes boss Wolff was sat next to Ferrari counterpart Maurizio Arrivabene in Friday’s team principal press conference, and lavished praise on Ferrari for upping their game in 2018 – even if it ultimately proved fruitless.
“Ferrari has ramped up their game over the last year tremendously,” said the 46-year-old Austrian.
“I think the performance levels are pretty close to each other in every race. We had a few races where we won and then Ferrari came back. They had the upper hand and I think it’s fluctuated over the season.”
Not only have Ferrari come on impressively, but the Red Bulls of Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo have also been mightily competitive too.
Australian Ricciardo won in China and Monaco while Dutch sensation Verstappen, 21, leads a new wave of exciting young talent and won in Austria and Mexico.
Ricciardo announced earlier in the season he will join Renault next year, with the French team improving to fourth behind the big three of Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull in the constructors’ championship this year, having claimed ninth and sixth respectively since returning to the sport in 2016.
So, with 2019 promising to be just as competitive if not more so, is Wolff worried?
“We very much welcome the challenge, we enjoy the fight, it’s why we are here,” he said.
“At the end (of 2018) we came back up with a small advantage but they (Ferrari) are a formidable competitor and definitely with new goals for next season there might be another team joining the party. And with new regulations it’s up in the air and will be competitive.”