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Sunday, November 18, 2012

Understanding Kimi Raikkonen: Part 1

Kimi during his McLaren years
(communicating with his team via his radio).

No one was happier than I to see Kimi Raikkonen leading this year’s Formula One race in Abu Dhabi.  After all, he spent three years away from the sport.  For him to return, and not to McLaren or Ferrari, but to Lotus, a team he had never raced for, marked an ambitious attempt to: 1) reclaim carefully honed driving skills, and 2) make himself an integral part of a team that, under its present organization and ownership, had yet to win a race.  For a Formula One race team is made up of hundreds of people, all employing unique skills developed through years of education and experience.  A team that has not won a race is a team that does not know how to win a race.  An experienced driver can help lead the team in various ways, but he is still one part of a machine that needs all its parts functioning in unison, with precision, and better than any other team, in order to achieve victory.  Yet Kimi didn’t just lead this year’s race in Abu Dhabi, he won it.  And that is extraordinary.

I suspect what surprised all of us, even more than his win, were Kimi’s radio messages.  Most drivers want to stay in touch with their team throughout the race.  Engineers and other key personnel can constantly update a driver on everything that is going on with the car, and how he is performing in relation to the other cars on the track.  Yet once Kimi attained the lead, he repeatedly asked for radio silence.  “Leave me alone,” he told his team leaders sitting before their computers and television monitors.  “I know what I’m doing.”  Why would he cut himself off from such a valuable source of information?

Recently, I’ve been reading The Right Stuff.  Author Tom Wolfe describes not only the experiences and training of the men who would become our nation’s first astronauts, but the mindset of these who would climb inside a metal canister bolted onto a rocket and be blasted into space.  The first astronauts were drawn from the ranks of pilots who tested the military’s experimental aircraft.  They were were used to watching their fellow pilots die. 

Consider Michael Collins, who would eventually travel into space aboard Gemini 10, and pilot the command module for Apollo 11.  But long before these triumphs, he experienced one particular period in which he saw over ten of his friends die.  These were men he flew with during the day, and socialized with during evenings and weekends.  His wife Jane began suffering from hallucinations, fearing every day that a base official would show up at their front door to announce that her husband was just the latest casualty in a regrettable series of accidents.  Yet her husband retained his enthusiasm for flying these incredibly dangerous machines. 

Michael Collins’ experience was not unusual.  Eventually, “the Navy would compile statistics showing that for a career Navy pilot…there was a 23 percent probability that he would die in an aircraft accident.  This did not even include combat deaths, since the military did not classify death in combat as accidental.”  Wolfe goes on to say that pilots stood a 56% chance of needing to eject from their aircraft at some point in their careers.  With such experimental aircraft, ejecting could destroy joints, rip off limbs, otherwise disfigure them, or still cost them their lives.  So many pilots opted to wrestle a recalcitrant aircraft to the ground, rather than risk ejection.   

What was the psychology of these men?  What type of personality did they develop that allowed them to routinely face such dangers?  And what did these men have in common with Formula One driver Kimi Raikkonen?  Hey, relax!  I’ll address that in Part 2. 

Trust me.  I know what I'm doing.

Dragon Dave

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