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Formula One: The iceman cometh

Some like it cold.

As befits a man who has spent much of his life within striking distance of the Arctic Circle, Kimi Raikkonen has a well-established taste for all things sub-zero. When not in the cockpit of his Lotus E20, his transports of delight include snowboards and snowmobiles, while one of his most-watched Youtube clips shows him munching on an ice cream.

And, as every chronicler of F1 who has ever laboured to extract more than a monosyllable from the man will testify, Raikkonen can be a distinctly frosty character at times. Away from the track, Raikkonen's laddish lifestyle and well-established fondness for adult beverages have drawn comparisons with James Hunt – Raikkonen himself wryly acknowledged the connection by using Hunt's moniker as his name de prix for an incognito entry in a snowboarding race – but his inner mercury drops like a stone at the sight of a notebook or microphone.

The front he presented to his media interrogators meant few were overjoyed last year when Lotus confirmed that Raikkonen would be coming back into the sport after a two-year sabbatical in which he dabbled in rallying, truck racing, NASCAR and motocross, diversions that presumably made only the slightest dents in the pay-off he had received from Ferrari, where he was reputed to have been earning $50 million per year.

It was no great struggle for Raikkonen's critics to find grounds for saying that his return to the track was an ill-advised venture that would do more harm to his reputation than good. The annals of the sport are densely populated with once-great drivers whose play-it-again efforts were distinctly off-key.

You don't have to dig deep into those annals either. Michael Schumacher may have played a noble part at the Chinese Grand Prix yesterday as he and Nico Rosberg helped Mercedes claim their first front-row lockout since Stirling Moss and Juan Manuel Fangio did in 1955, but in most of his races since his return in 2010 the seven-times champion could scarcely have looked more off the pace if he had attached a five-berth caravan to the rear of his car.

And then there was Alan Jones, the 1980 champion. Jones retired from F1 the year after securing that title and he kept on retiring even after his comeback. On his return, the Australian failed to finish all but four of the 20 races he contested, his sole achievement being to place an ugly stain on the vaunted reputation he had worked so hard to create a few years earlier.

Or what of Nigel Mansell, the broom-broom Brummie who was conspicuously short of va-va-voom when he came out of F1 retirement at the 1994 French Grand Prix. He did manage to win one race that season, but his career petered out the following year when he was too portly to fit into his McLaren.

Yet, there have been successes, too. Niki Lauda disappeared from F1 for two years, but came back to collect his third driver's title in 1984. Alain Prost found something better to do in 1992, but returned the following year to win his fourth and last championship. And it is with those drivers that Raikkonen, on the basis of his early performances this season at least, now seems most likely to be compared.

For while the 32-year-old Raikkonen enjoys the odd slug of Finnish vodka and the occasional Cornetto, his critics have been forced to eat their words. His first race, in Australia, was expected to be a demonstration drive, but it became a demonstration of the remarkable raw talent that had brought him into F1 a decade earlier when, controversially, he had only a handful of races in junior formulae behind him.

Raikkonen qualified in 17th place in Melbourne, yet he fought through the field to finish fifth. One week later, he backed up that performance with something along the same lines: qualifying 10th on the grid but getting to the chequered flag in fifth place. While Schumacher and Rosberg might feel satisfied with their one-two yesterday, they can hardly feel secure knowing that Raikkonen was the fifth fastest round the Shanghai International Circuit and will be sitting just one row back.

Raikkonen already has one distinction to his name this season, having clocked up the fastest lap in Malaysia. But then the signs that he had lost none of his pace had been there, for those who cared to look, from the moment he stepped into the Lotus at the Ricardo Tormo circuit in Valencia in late January. Raikkonen had one bedding-in lap, then opened up the throttle and ripped out a time within a few tenths of a second of the fastest lap over the next few days.

This in a car that was set up very differently to the one he had stepped out of two years earlier. But then, Raikkonen had never had the hold over Ferrari that Schumacher had enjoyed, and never really managed to get them to configure things to his liking. He is a far stronger figure at Lotus than he ever was with the boys from the Prancing Horse stable.

Maybe he will take a little more time to get back on the podium, but there's no question that Raikkonen is making up ground fast. Get the champagne ready then. And the ice, of course.

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