Throwback Kimi Raikkonen Inhales Atmosphere of F1's Bygone Era

US Flag

It was Nico Rosberg who did the outing. We had been talking about his father, Keke, who lifted the 1982 Formula One word championship in 1982, despite winning only one race. Rosberg junior, recalling the Flying Finn's win in Dallas in 1984, said: "It was 40 degrees and while the other drivers wore refrigerated suits, Dad was bare-chested in the sun, smoking a cigarette."

Old fashioned expressions were exchanged but no one smoked in the paddock these days. Surely there had not been a smoker in the sport since Jan Magnussen in the late 1990s. "No, you're wrong," said Rosberg. "There's one driver who lights one cigarette after another. I'm not naming names."

But who could this be? This is F1 2012 and today's drivers look like toothpicks in overalls. They have never been this fit. We spend as much time talking to Jenson Button about his triathlons as we do discussing his racing. Surely no one in F1 actually smokes? And then someone mentioned the name of Kimi Raikkonen, the party animal, and everyone started sniggering. "Yes, that's it, it must be Kimi!"

This, of course, may have been an awful slander. Raikkonen may not smoke at all. But, somehow, the notion fitted. Because the Finn is the throwback driver in the paddock. In the last race, in Abu Dhabi, his race engineer came on the radio to tell him about Fernando Alonso, who was chasing him down in his Ferrari. The Finn, the world champion of 2007, did not take kindly to that. "Just leave me alone," he said, impatiently. "I know what I'm doing."

Later in the afternoon the same engineer, this time a little more nervously, decided to make another communication, this time telling him to remember to warm up his new set of tyres. "Yes, yes, yes, yes," came the irritated response. "I'm doing all the tyres. You don't have to remind me every second."

After the race, when the 33-year-old Raikkonen had won a grand prix for the 19th time, Button reflected on his old rival. "I don't speak to him very often because I don't normally get an answer. He's a man of few words. But I flew back from Korea to Japan with him recently and I had a couple of beers with him and he opened up. He's a good guy."

But why is he so quiet? Maybe he was shy, Button was asked. "I think he's insecure," he said. "But he really deserved to win. He's been so close all year and I've been saying all year that Lotus are going to win a race. I just didn't say it at Abu Dhabi. Kimi is a true racer. He came back for the racing, which is great. He doesn't enjoy anything else in the sport, it seems, apart from the party afterwards if he wins. So I'm happy for him. He hasn't been in that position for a while."

Raikkonen, unlike Michael Schumacher, is the world champion who proved it was possible to come back. He left F1 at the end of the 2009 season, though he had a contract with Ferrari for 2010. He is one of the few people in the paddock who knows what it is like to drive in America.

Last year he tried his hand at Nascar. In April 2011 he signed a deal with the Toyota team Kyle Busch Motorsports to drive a less than full schedule in the Camping World Truck Series. It was, it must be said, less than a complete success. On his debut, at Charlotte Motor Speedway, he qualified 31st out of a field of 37. He was never to make a strong impression in the sport.

He also appeared lost to F1. There was talk about a lack of motivation – even when he was one of the leading lights in the paddock there were worries about his long-term commitment to the sport. But the rumours about a return started to build a momentum around the time of last year's Singapore Grand Prix. Williams, it was said, would sign him for the following year. But he went to Lotus. And though everyone was talking about his quick team-mate Romain Grosjean at the start of the season (they are still talking about him, but more about his crashes than his triumphs) it has been Raikkonen who has produced an impressively consistent season.

And if does smoke, everyone will turn a blind eye. When you are as good as he is you can get away with almost anything.

The Red Bull team principal, Christian Horner, has underlined the importance of the American market to Formula One after the sport's returns to the United States. "To be a true world championship you've got to have a race in America," he said. "And for the first time ever we've got a circuit that's specifically made to bring out the best and showcase Formula One cars.

"In some ways it's surprising for us to see how much interest there is in the US, how much knowledge there is about Formula One, how the city has come alive with Formula One coming into Texas. So this is a crucial race for Red Bull. America is Red Bull's biggest market, and certainly for our partners as well."

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Paul Weaver at Circuit of the Americas, for The Observer on Saturday 17th November 2012 21.09 Europe/London

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010