If the opening round of the F1 season was any indication, this season promises to be just as exciting as last year. Kimi Raikkonen cruised to what he called an “easy victory” on a two-stop strategy, but in a race that saw no less than seven lead changes. Clearly, Lotus did their homework over the off-season and had a better understanding of the tires than any other team, which could be crucial for the flyaway races. Also of note was Ferrari’s form in contrast to this time last year, the pace of Mercedes, and a stunning comeback drive from Adrian Sutil for the Sahara Force India team. Further evidence that Raikkonen is back in top form was seen from his drinking more champagne on the podium than he sprayed.
Australian GP: Kimi Raikkonen wins ahead of Fernando Alonso
By Andrew Benson Chief F1 writer in Melbourne
Lotus’s Kimi Raikkonen beat Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso in a tense strategic battle in the season-opening Australian Grand Prix.
Raikkonen made only two pit stops for fresh tyres compared to Alonso’s three and the Finn carefully managed his race to hold off the Ferrari’s challenge.
Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel took third ahead of Ferrari’s Felipe Massa and Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes.
Red Bull’s Mark Webber was sixth and Force India’s Paul di Resta eighth.
Jenson Button salvaged ninth for struggling McLaren ahead of the second Lotus of Romain Grosjean.
Raikkonen had started in seventh place on the grid but a good start put him up to fourth in the early laps.
Lotus put him on a two-stop strategy and he managed his tyres carefully to move into the lead on lap 23 as the other front-runners – Alonso, Massa and Vettel – made their second of three stops.
Alonso, who passed early leaders Vettel and Massa with an earlier second stop, set a series of fastest laps as he took the lead following Raikkonen’s final stop on lap 34.
Raikkonen re-took the lead when Alonso made his own final stop, after which he emerged third behind the Finn and Sutil, who was running second on his own two-stop strategy.
But once Alonso had passed Sutil, Raikkonen upped his pace and was able to keep the Ferrari at arm’s length and even pull away in the closing laps.
“Our plan was to do two stops,” said the Finn. “It’s always difficult in the first races to know when to stop. We got it exactly right, the team worked extremely well, we had a plan and we followed the plan, and it worked out perfectly for us.
“I could save the tyres and I could go fast when I wanted. It was one of the easiest races to win. Hopefully we can have more races like this.”
Vettel had looked poised for a comfortable win after setting impressive times in practice and taking pole by nearly half a second.
But the Red Bull could not keep pace with Raikkonen and Alonso in the race as he struggled with higher tyre wear than the Lotus and Ferrari.
“We can be happy with the pace all weekend, the whole team worked well,” said Vettel. “Obviously there is a bit of homework to do with the tyres. I think two stop was out of our range today. The naked pace was there.”
And the close battle bodes well for a competitive season between those three teams, who appear to have a slight advantage over the rest.
“Arriving here and fighting for the podium was the aim of the weekend,” said Alonso. “The car felt good so being on the podium is job done, let’s say.
“We didn’t have the pace to fight with Kimi today. He was too fast for us.”
Like Raikkonen, Mercedes tried a two-stop strategy with Hamilton, who appeared to be in with a chance of victory at one point, but the car’s tyre wear was too high and the 2008 world champion had to make an unplanned third pit stop and fell back to fifth.
He was a place ahead and outpacing team-mate Nico Rosberg before the German retired just before half distance.
Webber lined up on the front row alongside team-mate Vettel, but a terrible start dropped him to seventh following an ECU (electronic control unit) failure which automatically shut down his Kers power boost. His race was subsequently ruined when he was stuck behind Button after his first pit stop.
Sutil impressed in the Force India, leading at mid-race after starting from 11th place on the harder ‘medium’ tyre, while those in the top 10 had to start on the ‘super-softs’ on which they had qualified.
But he went too hard too early on the super-softs when he fitted them at his final stop and fell back to seventh.
Race results top 10
1. Kimi Raikkonen – Lotus 1:30:03.225
2. Fernando Alonso – Ferrari +00:12.451
3. Sebastian Vettel – Red Bull +00:22.346
4. Felipe Massa – Ferrari +00:33.577
5. Lewis Hamilton – Mercedes +00:45.561
6. Mark Webber – Red Bull +00:46.800
7. Adrian Sutil – Force India +01:64.068
8. Paul di Resta – Force India +01:67.449
9. Jenson Button – McLaren +01:80.630
10. Romain Grosjean – Lotus +01:81.759