Kimi Raikkonen drove a brilliant race to win the Australian Grand Prix for Lotus yesterday as the new Formula One season opened with an absolute thriller at Albert Park.
Finland’s 2007 world champion rode to victory on a two-stop strategy and crossed the line 12.4 seconds clear of Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso.
Triple world champion Sebastian Vettel rounded out the podium in third place for Red Bull.
The 25-year-old Vettel got away cleanly from pole position, but the variety of strategies forced on the teams by the tires and the pace shown by Red Bull’s rivals ensured it was never going to be a procession for the German.
A few light showers contributed to an intriguing race, but never threatened to disfigure it as drivers engaged in fierce battles around the circuit and the lead changed hands with surprising frequency.
Seven cars led the race at one stage or other, but after Raikkonen hit the front for the second time on lap 43, it looked like only a mechanical problem would stop him.
Raikkonen’s victory was the second of a comeback that started last season and his second in Melbourne since his triumph with Ferrari in the year of his championship success.
No one in the Lotus camp was getting carried away enough to suggest a repeat of that feat was on the cards this year, not least the famously taciturn Finn.
Even so, the sight of Raikkonen pulling away from Alonso and Vettel with the fastest lap of the race as the checkered flag beckoned was surely more than the team could have hoped for.
“It’s fantastic, the best start you can ever dream of,” team principal Eric Boullier said.
“We dreamed about it. When we were working on strategy we knew our car would possibly allow us to do only two pit stops. This morning again after the quali, we were just watching the car in parc ferme and saying ‘maybe it’s possible,’” he said.
Raikkonen executed the plan in a Lotus which proved easy on the tires, a critical advantage that allowed him to stay out on the track while his rivals were forced to make extra pit stops to change rubber.
“There were a lot of question marks, but I felt I had a good car and it turned out pretty good,” Raikkonen said. “It’s always difficult in the first race not to stop too early or too late, but we got it exactly right. We had a good plan and it worked perfectly for us.”
“Hopefully we can have many more wins,” he said.
Raikkonen made just one stop when he won his first race for Lotus in Abu Dhabi last year, a victory which the British-based team said showed they were a serious outfit and which also added to the Finn’s popular appeal.
In that race, Raikkonen told his race engineer to leave him alone on the team radio, adding: “I know what I’m doing.”
Yesterday, with Ciaron Pilbeam making his debut as the voice in Raikkonen’s headset after years working with Mark Webber at Red Bull, the Finn again showed he knew what to do and needed little guidance.
The 33-year-old, who had taken two years out of the sport to try rally driving and NASCAR before joining Lotus, helped them to fourth place in the constructors’ standings and finished third in the drivers’ standings last season.
Yesterday’s victory, from seventh on the grid, was another huge boost to the team as Raikkonen started his second year with the outfit that won multiple championships under their old names of Renault and Benetton.
It was also the first season-opening win by a team called Lotus since American Mario Andretti, who went on to take the title that year, triumphed in Argentina in 1978.
“I had a very good car all weekend even though I didn’t do any long runs in the winter,” said Raikkonen, whose 20th career win equalled the tally of double world champion compatriot Mika Hakkinen.
“You just have to get through the early laps in the first race of the season. Near the end, I was still pushing because I knew Fernando was catching up a bit and I thought at some point we would need a little extra if the rain came again,” he said.
“It’s only the start of the season, there is a lot of work to do if we want to fight for the championship,” Raikkonen said.
That he was able to beat the Red Bull of three-time champion Vettel so convincingly was a surprise not only to Raikkonen’s rivals.
“I have to share with you that we also were expecting the domination of Red Bull,” Boullier said. “Even if we knew that it would maybe struggle more with the tires, but at the end we are happy that we could do it.”
Alonso’s Brazilian teammate Felipe Massa finished fourth ahead of 2008 champion Lewis Hamilton in his first race for Mercedes after leaving McLaren.
Red Bull’s Mark Webber had a terrible start from the front row and came up short in his 12th attempt to win his home race, finishing sixth.
Adrian Sutil, returning to the sport after a year out, enjoyed a long period as the unlikely leader of the race, but finished seventh, just ahead of his Force India team mate Paul di Resta.
Jenson Button, the winner of three of the last four races at Albert Park, was clearly off the pace, but brought his McLaren home in ninth, with Raikkonen’s French teammate Romain Grosjean claiming the final point in 10th.
The race started with 21 cars after Nico Hulkenberg’s Sauber suffered a fuel system failure and he was unable to take to the grid, while Caterham’s Charles Pic was allowed to take part by the stewards despite not having set a qualifying time.