Formula 1's Kimi Raikkonen leads international affair at Watkins Glen
By Bob Pockrass
FOX Sports NASCAR Writer
When Justin Marks announced Kimi Raikkonen as his driver for a new project targeting growing NASCAR’s international audience, he had no idea just how international the Watkins Glen race Sunday would be.
The 2007 Formula 1 champion from Finland headlines a list of six drivers from foreign countries who will compete Sunday, giving the Cup Series a record seven countries represented in a Cup race.
"I think he’s going to haul ass," Marks said of Raikkonen. "He’s very focused."
Raikkonen, who competed in an Xfinity race and a truck race (both on ovals) in 2011, will be making his Cup debut along with German road-racing standout Mike Rockenfeller, who will drive for Spire Motorsports.
Three other international drivers have minimal Cup experience: Live Fast Motorsports’ Kyle Tilley (born in England; four Cup starts and one Xfinity start), Team Hezeberg’s Daniil Kvyat (Russia; one Cup start) and Reaume Brothers' Loris Hezemans (Holland; three Cup starts and six Xfinity starts). Kvyat is the biggest name, having driven in Formula 1 from 2014 to '20. Tilley has sports-car experience, and Hezemans won the 2019 NASCAR Europe title.
"Everyone loves racing where I am from," Kvyat said at his debut last month in Indianapolis. "Everyone likes to drive fast. In Europe, it can grow — the more F1 drivers who come to NASCAR, the more worldwide interest will grow.
One foreign-born driver is well-known to NASCAR fans: Daniel Suárez, who became the first Mexican driver to win a NASCAR Cup Series race when he triumphed at Sonoma earlier this year. He also became the first foreign-born driver to win a NASCAR national series championship when he captured the 2016 Xfinity Series title.
Most of the spotlight for the newcomers will be on Raikkonen, who is racing as part of Trackhouse’s Project 91, designed to bring a driver of international notoriety into the Cup Series. The other drivers will be in cars that have rarely run near the front of the field this year.
Raikkonen won 21 Formula 1 races in his career. He finished 15th and 27th in his truck and Xfinity starts.
"It's a good thing for our sport to get some good publicity," Denny Hamlin said. "But other than that, I'm not really sure that it changes the dynamic of the race too much."
Hamlin wasn’t saying that to be dismissive; it’s just that racing in Cup is an adjustment. Plus, all the Cup drivers have access to data and simulator time, which have helped them become much better road racers than a decade ago.
"These are two opposite worlds. The way the cars drive and how you need to drive them, it is like day and night," Kvyat said at Indianapolis. "They’re both really cool and great fun in different ways.
"The guys here have done it since they were 7 years old. So I just came into completely new territory."
Raikkonen hasn’t been in a car since the 2021 Formula 1 finale.
"It’s been fun being in the car, not having driven any race car since the last F1 race," Raikkonen said following a test last week. "Hopefully we can get a somewhat good result."
NASCAR revised its testing rule earlier this year to allow a driver with elite credentials from the top levels of motorsports to do an orientation test. The driver can’t test with the team that will field the car for the race, but the Cup team can have four representatives at the test.
Raikkonen and Rockenfeller both tested last week for a couple of hours in a car built by Action Express Racing, a sports-car racing team that did some testing for NASCAR in the development of the Next Gen car and is partially owned by NASCAR Chairman Jim France.
"It was nice to get some laps, even though it is not exactly the same car we are going to race," Raikkonen said. "But it was beneficial just to put some laps and have some fun and know what the car is somewhat doing."
Suárez, who drives for Trackhouse, attended the test with Raikkonen and accompanied him to simulator sessions. Raikkonen is known for being stoic and not very loquacious when it comes to media, but Suárez said he was inquisitive and engaging at the test.
"He asked a lot of questions," he said. "He was very open-minded. I really thought he was going to be more quiet. A lot of people know him as being very, very quiet and a ‘leave me alone’ kind of thing, but he is not like that at all.
"He has been learning very quickly. I knew that he knows how to drive. He is natural with that. But I was very curious to get to know him in more of the mindset level."
The biggest challenge for newcomers will be the intricacies of the NASCAR rules, as well as the amount of contact the cars will have with other cars throughout the event.
Raikkonen has been watching races to learn about NASCAR strategy.
"From a speed and preparation and knowledge standpoint, he’s going to be right on par," Marks said. "Where the challenge is going to be is making sure he understands the race from a procedural standpoint. ... Penalties will take the whole day away from you.
"That's where the heavy lift will be, and I think that's where we're going to be focusing a lot of our attention, making sure that he's educated. But the way that he showed up, ready to get fitted in the car — I have high expectations."
Marks believes the Next Gen car is suited to international drivers because the car’s design is more like that of a sports car, which many drivers have raced at some point in their careers. That should make the transition a little easier than with previous NASCAR cars.
Cup drivers welcome seeing drivers of international acclaim in the field. They also have reason to be wary of any driver who doesn’t have many Cup starts, as last fall, experienced road-racer Joey Hand accidentally got into Martin Truex Jr. at the Charlotte road course, nearly costing Truex a spot in the playoff semifinal round.
"There’s just a little bit of hesitancy when you get around cars that you don’t know," Chris Buescher said. "Part-time drivers in our sport, they usually come around enough that we know who they are and what they’re like.
"That makes it a little bit different when we head into a race like this, where we’ve got first-timers. But at the same time, it feels wrong to put rookie stripes on some of the names."
The lack of knowledge will work both ways and will be a challenge for Raikkonen and the others.
"He doesn't know all these drivers," Suárez said of Raikkonen. "He doesn't know how they race. He doesn't know how aggressive they are, so that part is going to take a little bit.
"You can bring the best driver in the world, and it is going to take some time in the racing part."
What to watch for
After the frustration of Indianapolis, don’t expect a lot of give-and-take from some drivers at Watkins Glen. And let’s be clear: Road-course racing is about give-and-take.
The question is how much to give? Drivers who need to win (and Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex Jr. when talking about points) won’t be interested in much giving. They’ll want to do as much taking as possible.
Any driver who felt wronged at Indy (and there were plenty of them) also won’t be interested in doing much giving. They already feel they lost too many spots a few weeks ago.
Watch with the adage of "I’ll race you the way you raced me" in mind whenever drivers are side-by-side or a driver needs a break to hold his position or get back in the racing groove. Those who try to squeeze their way in or use the bumper too much can expect that in return.
Thinking out loud
It’s Watkins Glen week, and that means a reboot of talking about the boot, a one-mile section of the course that NASCAR doesn’t use but other forms of racing do use.
For decades, some fans have advocated for adding the sections, thinking it could make the race more exciting. But NASCAR has hesitated. Lengthening the course by a mile would mean fewer laps — and that would mean fewer times fans see the cars. Plus, the boot has tight turns, which has sparked debate about whether Cup cars could pass in these sections or it would be follow-the-leader.
As NASCAR learned when it added a section to Sonoma Raceway for a couple of years, change isn’t always a good thing. NASCAR has good racing at Watkins Glen. There’s no reason to change it.
They said it
"I don’t think it’s realistic to try to change my name at this point. ... I've been trying really hard for probably close to 15 years, between ARCA and NASCAR racing, to get my name correctly pronounced as ‘Bush-err.’ And that's been long enough just trying to figure that one out." — Chris Buescher
Bob Pockrass has spent decades covering motorsports, including the past 30 Daytona 500s. He joined FOX Sports in 2019 following stints at ESPN, Sporting News, NASCAR Scene magazine and The (Daytona Beach) News-Journal. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @bobpockrass. Looking for more NASCAR content? Sign up for the FOX Sports NASCAR Newsletter with Bob Pockrass!