By Alan Baldwin
LONDON (Reuters) - Kimi Raikkonen expressed his love for Ferrari on Wednesday after the Formula One team said the Finn would be staying with them next year in an unchanged lineup with Germany's Sebastian Vettel.
"What can I say?...for me, to be able to stay another year at Ferrari means that the dream goes on," the 35-year-old told the team website after an announcement that caught the sport off guard.
"The Scuderia (team) is my family, as I always said, it's here (that) I want to end my career. I am more committed than ever and I want to say thank you to the people who gave me this chance."
Raikkonen was out of contract at the end of 2015 and facing an uncertain future, with media speculation already focusing on who might replace the 'Iceman' at one of the most coveted seats on the starting grid.
Instead, a short statement from Maranello forced a rethink.
"Scuderia Ferrari announces that it has renewed its technical and racing agreement with Kimi Raikkonen," the team said as the paddock regrouped in Spa-Francorchamps for Sunday's Belgian Grand Prix.
"The driver lineup next season will still consist of the Finnish driver and Sebastian Vettel."
Raikkonen, the 2007 world champion who returned to Ferrari in 2014, had always made clear he wanted to stay but team principal Maurizio Arrivabene had been keeping his options open about one of the sport's highest paid drivers.
"We believe that extending Kimi's contract into the next season will provide further stability to the team," said Arrivabene, well aware that an announcement now will relieve Ferrari of unwanted hassle at next month's Italian Grand Prix.
"This (stability) has been our guideline, also considering the very good relationship between Kimi and Seb. On our side, this shows our great confidence in him and I expect this confidence to be well rewarded," added Arrivabene.
Had Raikkonen been dropped, it would have triggered a driver merry-go-round as well as the likely farewell of one of Formula One's most popular, if least talkative, drivers.
Raikkonen's compatriot Valtteri Bottas, currently with Williams, had been considered a frontrunner with speculation in the Finnish and Italian media having suggested Bottas has an agreement with Ferrari for 2017, if not next year.
Italy's Corriere dello Sport newspaper last month claimed Ferrari had agreed to pay Williams some 12 million euros ($13.28 million) for releasing Bottas early from an option on his contract.
That is clearly not the case, and Bottas is likely to remain at Williams for at least another year.
Raikkonen, eclipsed by Spaniard Fernando Alonso at Ferrari last year, has been outperformed by Vettel in 2015 with the German scoring 160 points to the Finn's 76.
Four-times world champion Vettel, who moved from Red Bull at the end of last year, has already won two races for Ferrari while Raikkonen has not triumphed since he was at Lotus in 2013.
The Finn, who can now look forward to his sixth year at Maranello after first joining from McLaren in 2007 and then being dropped at the end of 2009, has made just one podium this year -- second place in Bahrain.
($1 = 0.9038 euros)
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Ken Ferris and Pritha Sarkar)