Kimi Raikkonen and Lotus sent out a powerful message to rivals by managing a two-stop strategy to perfection and taking a thrilling victory in Melbourne, ahead of Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel. And to rub it in, Raikkonen set the fastest lap of the race at the end, showing that he had more life left in his tyres.
In a race that saw seven different leaders and the majority of the field running a three-stop programme, Raikkonen was able to make one less stop in the Lotus E21, that is well-known for its gentleness on the tyres. He worked his way into the race lead after a lengthy second stint on the medium tyre, which saw his opposition having to stop much earlier for a second set of medium tyres.
Having started the race in seventh place, the Finn produced an extremely consistent drive as he and the Lotus chassis showed the pace that all other teams had feared in recent weeks. Romain Grosjean’s fast and consistent long run in the Barcelona test was the indication, for those who wished to see it, that the car has the capability to do one less stop in marginal races than rivals.
The platform for the race victory was built during the first two laps when Raikkonen made his way past a number of cars and found himself in fourth position. His long second stint was the clincher. It is Raikkonen’s second victory since his return to Formula One last year and the 20th of his career.
“I’m happy for the team and for myself also,” said Raikkonen. “We’ve had a quick car all weekend and I had a good feeling that we would be ok with the tyres after practice and the team got the strategy perfect.
“It was quite simple; probably one of my easiest wins. You can’t start the season much better than winning the first race and of course we hope we can be fighting at the front of the Championship, but there’s a long way to go.”
Alonso was the best of the three-stoppers and drove an equally impressive race, using the under-cut at the second stop to find his way past a trio of cars made up of Adrian Sutil, Vettel and Ferrari team mate Felipe Massa. Alonso lost some ground in the opening stint behind Massa, but the Ferrari wasn’t able to do the race in two stops and his pace in the final stint was interesting; he pushed hard at the start, then faded. Nevertheless it was a very positive weekend for the team and the radio message to Alonso from his engineer, “Ci Siamo” (“We are there”) indicates that the team know they have a good chance of the title this year, starting from this baseline.
Vettel and Red Bull looked unbeatable in qualifying; the German had looked set to again dominate from the outset after opening up a two second lead early on, but he was quickly hauled in by a quick starting Massa and Alonso. The Ferrari pairing made a very good start past Lewis Hamilton and a slow starting Mark Webber and were able to set themselves up for a their strong result.
Red Bull did not have the race pace to match its qualifying efforts and with Webber ending the race in sixth place after KERS issues contributed to another poor start, it looks to be a very open and competitive season ahead.
Like Alonso, Massa had a very strong race and could have been on the podium had he not stayed out a lap too long for his final pit stop. He matched Alonso’s pace throughout, having outqualified the Spaniard by 3/1000ths of a second.
Hamilton in his first race for Mercedes attempted an ambitious two-stop strategy but was forced in to a late tyre change to stop himself from dropping down the order. He lost out to both Ferraris at the start and did not quite have the pace to match the front-runners. However, it will still be a satisfying result for the Briton with his former employers much further down the order.
Sutil was a candidate for driver of the day; starting from twelfth place and the first car on medium tyres, held his pace across a long first stint and led the Grand Prix at two stages. He matched the pace of the race leaders, but ultimately dropped down to seventh place when he had to pit for the obligatory set of option compound tyres.
Jenson Button and Sergio Perez ended the race in ninth and eleventh places respectively after a troubled first race for McLaren. The car was well off the pace and there were operational mistakes too in qualifying and the race, leaving the team with a long and gloomy debrief.
Paul Di Resta made it a solid day for Force India by ending the race directly behind team mate Sutil. He also managed to take just two pit-stops and gain a good haul of points for the Silverstone based squad.
Completing the top ten behind Button was Romain Grosjean. The sister Lotus did not have a good start and was caught in traffic during the race.
Nico Rosberg was the only high profile retiree, dropping out of the race near the halfway point after losing drive. His compatriot Nico Hulkenberg failed to make the start when his Sauber suffered a fuel system failure.
At the tailend of the field, Jules Bianchi came out on top of the Marussia/Caterham battle ending the race in 15th place. But there was great encouragement for the team as Bianchi set the 11th fastest race lap, albeit on a new set of supersofts in the final laps.
AUSTRALIAN GRAND PRIX, Melbourne, 58 laps, Dry throughout
1. Kimi Raikkonen Lotus 1h30m03.225s
2. Fernando Alonso Ferrari + 12.451s
3. Sebastian Vettel Red Bull + 22.346s
4. Felipe Massa Ferrari + 33.577s
5. Lewis Hamilton Mercedes + 45.561s
6. Mark Webber Red Bull + 46.800s
7. Adrian Sutil Force India + 1m05.068s
8. Paul di Resta Force India + 1m08.449s
9. Jenson Button McLaren + 1m21.630s
10. Romain Grosjean Lotus + 1m22.759s
11. Sergio Perez McLaren + 1m23.367s
12. Jean-Eric Vergne Toro Rosso + 1m23.857s
13. Esteban Gutierrez Sauber + 1 lap
14. Valtteri Bottas Williams + 1 lap
15. Jules Bianchi Marussia + 1 lap
16. Charles Pic Caterham + 2 laps
17. Max Chilton Marussia + 2 laps
18. Giedo van der Garde Caterham + 2 laps