By Alan Baldwin
LONDON (Reuters) - Kimi Raikkonen's return to Ferrari alongside Fernando Alonso has handed Formula One a compelling storyline for the next two seasons.
Whether the stellar line-up of champions, Ferrari's first such pairing for 50 years, blazes a trail to title glory or derails itself in a shower of sparks along the way remains to be seen.
The two are fire and ice, and it has been no secret in the Formula One paddock that Alonso would rather have retained Brazilian Felipe Massa as a loyal number two, but equally determined.
Both know what it takes to win titles, both are supremely quick and old and wise enough to see beyond the usual mind games.
"I don't think Alonso will be too pleased to see Raikkonen there," said former racer and Sky television commentator Martin Brundle on Wednesday.
"He (Raikkonen) will go about it in his own way. If he heard a radio message 'Fernando is faster than you', Kimi Raikkonen is not going to move out of the way.
"He's going to radio back and say 'So why is he behind me, then, if he's faster than me?". And a few expletives along the way. It will definitely put Alonso on his toes. It will be the strongest pairing in Formula One."
Raikkonen, the last driver to win a title for Ferrari and first in the post-Michael Schumacher era, did assist Massa in 2008 just as the Brazilian helped him become champion. But generally, the Finn does not do small talk and nor does he seem remotely intimidated by anybody or anything.
When Jenson Button linked up with 2008 champion Lewis Hamilton at McLaren in 2010 in Formula One's most recent 'super team' of champions, the older Briton was warned that he was entering the 'Lion's Den' with everything geared around Hamilton.
It did not work out that way, and 2009 champion Button is now the established leader at McLaren while Hamilton has moved on to Mercedes.
Alonso has grown accustomed to being the main man at Maranello but Raikkonen knows his way around the factory corridors well enough and is also being reunited with former colleagues.
The Finn has already won nine races for Ferrari from his previous stint there, only two fewer than Alonso - who won his titles at Renault in 2005 and 2006 - has racked up for the scuderia.
Raikkonen may not care - or talk - enough to be a leader of men, in the mould of Schumacher or Alonso, but speed and success are powerful motivators in themselves and the 2007 champion will play to his strengths.
Pat Fry and James Allison, two key technical figures, worked with him at McLaren and Lotus respectively - as they did with Alonso.
Ferrari team principal Stefano Domenicali is a known Raikkonen fan, despite the Finn being paid off for the final year of his contract at the end of 2009 to make way for Alonso.
All that means that there should be a much more level playing field next term at a team renowned in recent years for favoring one driver over another.
At a time when Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel is speeding towards his fourth successive title, and the sport is reliving the sort of yawning domination that Schumacher enjoyed at Ferrari, that has to be good news for spectators.
Alonso, however, is likely to be concerned that Ferrari's dream team could turn into another personal nightmare - unless their car is so dominant that they are battling only themselves.
When the Spaniard was paired with Hamilton, then in his rookie season, at McLaren in 2007 they fought all the way with the team insisting on equal status.
The outcome saw Raikkonen snatch the title against the odds with Hamilton and Alonso level-pegging one point behind the Finn.
Had McLaren imposed the tactics Ferrari employed during the Schumacher era, or during Alonso's partnership with Massa, the 31-year-old Spaniard might be a triple champion by now.
Ferrari chairman Luca Di Montezemolo used to tell reporters, when asked about the chance of Vettel joining Alonso, that there was no space for "two roosters in the same hen house".
That policy has now been ripped up. How much they have to crow about next season is an open question but one that will be fascinating to watch.
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Alison Wildey)