LONDON (Reuters) - Ferrari chairman Luca di Montezemolo shunned questions about Kimi Raikkonen on Tuesday amid mounting speculation that the 2007 Formula One champion could be back at Maranello next season.
“We won’t talk about Formula One today,” the Italian told reporters at the Frankfurt motor show. “I am trying to convince a driver to come back and am speaking to Schumacher tomorrow,” he joked.
Seven-times champion Michael Schumacher, now 44 and fully retired after his comeback with Mercedes ended last year, is most definitely not in the running. Raikkonen, the 33-year-old with the glacial gaze and ‘Iceman’ tattooed on his forearm, certainly is.
Paddock whispers after last weekend’s Italian Grand Prix at Monza spoke of a done deal, although Lotus were still hoping to keep their man and Ferrari team principal Stefano Domenicali said no decision had been taken.
Raikkonen has plenty of supporters among the passionate Ferrari ‘tifosi’ as the team’s first champion of the post-Schumacher era, and last to date, and his return would a break with Ferrari tradition as much as a blast from the past.
Assuming Alonso does not produce any bombshell of his own and that it is Felipe Massa who is replaced, Ferrari would have a former world number one on both sides of the garage next season for the first time since most fans can remember.
In the 1950s, team founder Enzo Ferrari had Italian champions Alberto Ascari and Giuseppe Farina racing in his cars together but Montezemolo has spoken out in the past against having “two roosters in the same henhouse”.
Alain Prost and Nigel Mansell were there together in 1990 but the Briton would have to wait until 1992 with Williams before he became a champion.
Since the arrival of Michael Schumacher in 1996, Ferrari has preferred to be a team with one driver clearly ranked ahead of the other.
The German notched up five of his seven titles with Ferrari, taking all but 19 of his 91 wins with the Italian team in the decade between 1996 and 2006.
Britain’s Eddie Irvine and Brazilians Rubens Barrichello and Massa managed just 15 wins between them as his team mates over that period.
While speculation about Massa’s future has been a regular occurrence of recent seasons, this time it seems the Brazilian has run out of road.
He has not won since 2008, when he was overall runner-up, and been on the podium just once this year.
“Between the improbable confirmation of Massa and the probable arrival of Raikkonen, it’s not difficult to imagine what Alonso would prefer,” said Tuesday’s Gazzetta dello Sport newspaper.
Raikkonen is a man who refuses to be anything other than himself, an often taciturn soul who would happily skip most media engagements and likes to let his driving do the talking. Not much fazes him, least of all paddock mind games.
When the Finn left Ferrari in 2009 to make way for Fernando Alonso, he went without burning any bridges. When he came back, after two years in rallying, it was like he had never been away.
Alonso, who endured a fiery 2007 season with Lewis Hamilton at McLaren, would undoubtedly prefer a more subservient partner.
“I have a lot of respect for Felipe. We’ve been working very hard and close for four years to give Ferrari the maximum,” Alonso said in a response to fans on Twitter on Monday.
“Whatever decision the team will take will be good for me and we will keep working to give Ferrari the best results possible.”
A Ferrari vacancy, the seat every aspiring racing driver dreams of, is a rare occurrence - leaving aside the occasional stand-in role - and the arrival of a champion even rarer.
“We are putting on the table all the elements,” Domenicali told reporters after the race on Sunday.
“We want to put all the consideration before taking the right decision and we will announce and say something on that as soon as we have finalized our discussion, because it is for sure not an easy decision for us.”
(Additional reporting by Jennifer Clark in Frankfurt)
Editing by Ed Osmond