There was a distinctive and full-on welcome for Formula One driver Kimi Raikkonen as he prepared to make his second NASCAR Cup Series start over the weekend for Trackhouse Racing’s famed Project91 at Circuit of the Americas (COTA).
Fans crowded outside the No. 91 Project91 Trackhouse Racing Chevrolet parked on pit road before qualifying, awaiting Raikkonen’s arrival with smiles and cell phone cameras at the ready. They were on the grid race morning – Project91 t-shirts on; vocal and supportive, wishing him luck. And there were plenty of cheers as he finally climbed out of his race-worn Chevy late Sunday afternoon - his 29th place finish hardly indicative of the day’s massive work.
So many supporters knew Raikkonen from a championship Formula One career and appreciated his venture into NASCAR’s premier series at COTA, one of the more challenging road courses on either schedule. The Finnish driver’s presence in Austin was an international racing gift of sorts for both the fans that cheered him on and the other drivers who cherished a chance to race against a world champion.
Raikkonen was optimistic going into Sunday’s EchoPark Automotive Grand Prix having competed last year with the championship-contending Trackhouse team at the famed Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International road course and having raced at COTA multiple times in Formula One.
“I’m happy to be back with the team, PROJECT91, and at the track that I know,’’Raikkonen, 43, said Saturday on the eve of the race.
“Obviously, a lot different to how it feels. It’s the same track but it feels a lot different in an F1 car to a NASCAR car. A lot of the corners are more kind of straights in F1 because of the downforce. It gets a bit trickier in a NASCAR car. It’s nice to be back and it’s a lovely place to be here in Texas. Let’s hope we can do well. We will try to improve from [qualifying] and see what we do in the race.”
There was a distinctive feeling that Raikkonen’s presence alone raised the stakes for the competitors and for the NASCAR event – the first road course test of the season.
With less than an hour of practice and a brief 15-minute qualifying session, Raikkonen was essentially left to rely on his own positive history with the track.
He competed on the Austin circuit eight times in Formula One – technically giving him more experience on the track than anyone else on Sunday’s grid. And a crucial upside to this second Project91 start was that the Circuit of the Americas course is home to his 21st and final Formula One victory in 2018 – his Scuderia Ferrari leading a dominating 39 of the 56 laps besting a podium that also included then teenaged Max Verstappen- now the reigning F1 champion - and seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton.
“That was my last win and obviously, here, great memories,’’ Raikkonen said of the Austin circuit. “It was a long time coming and it was a nice race. It wasn’t an easy race, but we managed to win it. I have, for sure, good memories of that.”
But, he conceded, it’s a long time between that Formula One victory and now making his second NASCAR Cup Series start. That he returned to the stock car set shows his genuine interest in succeeding and the appeal of working with Trackhouse in such a unique program.
“I haven’t driven any racecars since last year, so it takes a while to get used to it again even though I know the car,’’ Raikkonen explained. “The car has lost some downforce, so it makes it a bit more tail-happy. At least I know that most of the things how it goes. Is it going to get any better results? We’ll find out. But I know the track so that helps, but as I said before it’s a lot different track with a NASCAR car than an F1 car. I feel more ready for sure on that side now that I know how the race goes and how everything else goes.”
Raikkonen’s team leader over the weekend was NASCAR Cup Series championship crew chief Darian Grubb, who serves as Trackhouse Racing’s Director of Performance fulltime. He worked with Raikkonen at Watkins Glen last year and the two have developed a genuine repertoire. Grubb said their time in Austin was made easier because of their history. And because of Raikkonen’s history with COTA.
“He knows the track so much better already, he didn’t have to rely on the simulator laps to get acclimated to the track,’’ Grubb said. “He came in and he knew what the corners were, he knew what he was looking for, how to make his apexes. Now of course, some of that he had to learn what was different between doing that with a Formula One car and all the downforce versus the NASCAR car and having to straight-line this car and especially track limits are completely different versus the NASCAR side of things. So that part has been a learning curve but he’s adapted quickly. “
The race in Austin was certainly proof of that. Although the No. 91 Chevrolet suffered damage during hard, full-contact racing in the opening laps, Raikkonen and Grubb continued to make it better with each pit stop. And on the penultimate race re-start in overtime, Raikkonen was actually among the Top-10 cars before being collected in another multi-car frantic push to the finish.
“It’s such a shame how it went in the end, but I think we did the right thing,’’ Raikkonen said after the race. “We were there.”
And, he allowed of another potential start in the Project91 car, “We’ll see what the future brings.’’
There is no question that Project91 is a one-of-a-kind trailblazing success story. And as Raikkonen, Grubb and the entire team continued to prove over the weekend in Austin, it’s already become a winning proposition all-around.
“I’m really happy with where PROJECT91 is right now,’’ Trackhouse Racing team co-owner Justin Marks said. “It’s resonating with people. We’ve got some great sponsors on the car this weekend.
“We’re going to definitely race this car multiple times this year."Justin Marks
"We’re not ready to make any of those announcements yet but people are taking notice. We’ve got some great sponsorships coming our way. It’ll be an exciting program we’ll be able to announce pretty soon.”