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By Alan Baldwin
LONDON, Nov 29 (Reuters) - Former world champion Kimi Raikkonen will make an eagerly-anticipated comeback to Formula One next season after signing a two-year contract with Lotus, the team currently known as Renault said on Tuesday.
The 32-year-old Finn won his title with Ferrari in 2007 but quit Formula One two years later and switched to rallying.
“I’m looking forward to playing an important role in pushing the team to the very front of the grid,” Raikkonen, who also had discussions with former champions Williams, said in a team statement.
The team, no longer owned by Renault, will race under the name of their title sponsor Lotus from next season.
They did not say who Raikkonen’s team mate would be, although Russian Vitaly Petrov has a contract for 2012. France’s Romain Grosjean, this year’s GP2 champion, had been widely expected to take the second seat.
The taciturn but party-loving Raikkonen, who has won 18 races with McLaren and Ferrari in a Formula One career that started with Sauber in 2001, remains hugely popular with the fans who know him as the ‘Iceman’.
He said the two years he spent in rallying had been useful for him as a driver, but that he had an overwhelming hunger to return to Formula One.
“I have been impressed by the scope of the team’s ambition. Now I’m looking forward to playing an important role in pushing the team to the very front of the grid,” added the Finn.
His prospects of doing that remain very much an open question, with Renault finishing this season fifth overall and without a win since double champion Fernando Alonso was driving for them in 2008.
The team has changed considerably since their championship glory days and, despite starting this year with two podium finishes, have rarely been able to take the fight to the top teams above them.
Seven-times world champion Michael Schumacher, Raikkonen’s Ferrari predecessor who started his comeback last year after three seasons away, has yet to return to the podium with fourth-placed Mercedes.
While many felt Schumacher left Ferrari too early, Raikkonen’s time at the Italian team after he won his championship by a single point was characterised by a sense of disinterest.
Never a driver with much interest in media or sponsor commitments, Raikkonen always did his talking on the track and Lotus will be hoping the man they get is more reminiscent of five years ago than the 2009 Ferrari version.
“All year long, we kept saying that our team was at the start of a brand new cycle,” said Gerard Lopez, chairman of team owners Genii Capital.
“Kimi’s decision to come back to Formula One with us is the first step of several announcements which should turn us into an even more serious contender in the future.”
Raikkonen’s presence means the Formula One grid will have six champions — the others being Alonso, Jenson Button, Lewis Hamilton, Schumacher and Sebastian Vettel — lining up to start the season in Melbourne next March.
Poland’s Robert Kubica, the Pole who was supposed to be Renault’s leading driver this year, will not be there after missing the entire season due to life-threatening injuries sustained in a rally accident in February.
Out of contract with Renault at the end of this year, Kubica’s chances of racing in 2012 now look more remote after Raikkonen’s appointment, although he has been linked to Ferrari.
Few vacancies remain in Formula One, with the main focus now on Williams.
Germany’s Adrian Sutil is expected to join Venezuelan Pastor Maldonado at that team, leaving veteran Brazilian Rubens Barrichello out in the cold, with Force India understood to have Britain’s Paul di Resta and German Nico Hulkenberg signed up.
The top four teams will have unchanged line-ups in 2012 but Red Bull have a headache with four youngsters from their driver programme chasing two seats at Toro Rosso.
One of them, HRT’s Australian Daniel Ricciardo, has been strongly linked to a move to Caterham, formerly Team Lotus, in place of Jarno Trulli and despite the Italian having a contract.
Additional reporting by Terhi Kinnunen in Helsinki Editing by Peter Rutherford