2013 Australian GP: Kimi Raikkonen surges to Melbourne win as Red Bull threat fades
Lotus driver's two-stop sees off Alonso as Vettel slips to third
By James Galloway. Last Updated: 17/03/13 9:13am
Phew, well no one was quite expecting that!
Fears that Formula 1 was set to witness another season of Red Bull domination evaporated inside the space of the 58 laps of the Australian GP, as in a completely unexpected turn of events, Kimi Raikkonen and Lotus played a tactical blinder to win the season-opening race from Ferrari's similarly-impressive Fernando Alonso.
On a Sunday of table-turning fortunes surprising by even the notoriously-unpredictable Albert Park's standards, triple World Champions Red Bull had earlier initially appeared to have comprehensively thrown down the gauntlet to the pretenders to their crowns during the morning's delayed conclusion to the qualifying hour when Sebastian Vettel headed the most dominant of front-row lockouts as the weather finally turned for the better in Melbourne.
The scale of the German's advantage - six tenths of a second over the first non-RB9 car - had sent shock waves through the paddock and fearful opinions were voiced that the sport might be set to witness a repeat of the team's crushingly-dominant 2011 campaign.
However, come race conditions, and against all odds and expectations, those fears didn't take long to subside. First Mark Webber made his latest wretched start from the front row and, while Vettel initially opened up a two-second gap from pole, the fast-starting Ferraris soon began hounding him through the opening stint.
The World Champion managed to hold his advantage through the first of three rounds of pitstops but was overwhelmed by Alonso in the second, as the Ferrari man appeared to be given pitstop priority over team-mate Felipe Massa, who had initially impressively held his qualifying advantage over the Spaniard.
However, from the fourth row on the grid, Raikkonen and Lotus were plotting a different course - a two-stop strategy to be precise owing to the E21's expected kinder tyre wear - and their ploy played out perfectly as the Finn inherited the lead when the Ferrari and Red Bull peeled into the pits for the final time.
Australian GP - Race in 60 seconds
Alonso initially tried to come back at his old rival with a succession of fastest laps on slightly fresher medium rubber, but his F138's tyres then started to lose their bite in turn. The final ten laps proved a cruise for Raikkonen and he ultimately claimed his 20th career victory to confirm his and Lotus's status as serious 2013 title contenders.
Still, second place for Alonso - and a finishing advantage of ten seconds over the man who pipped him to last year's title, Vettel - will surely satisfy Ferrari given the Spaniard had suggested prior to the race that Ferrari, while having hit their pre-season targets, were still a little way adrift of Red Bull.
Indeed, the lingering question surrounding the World Champions heading into next week's swift turnaround in Malaysia will be what exactly happened to the RB9's pace over the longer distance, with third for Vettel and sixth for Webber a world away from their earlier dominant front row.
Result 'better than expected'
Vettel played the car's slower-than-expected pace down on the podium afterwards, and outwardly appeared reasonably happy with the result, with warmer temperatures perhaps set to tell a different story in seven days' time at Sepang.
Massa capped a fine start to the season for Ferrari - and the early lead of the Constructors' Championship - with fourth place, although the nature of the way he fell behind his de-facto team leader in the middle of the race, when he pitted later for fresh tyres than Alonso despite running ahead of the road, might be a source of quiet frustration for the back-on-form Brazilian.
Mercedes, as expected, fell backwards in the race from new signing Lewis Hamilton's stunning third place on the grid in what appeared to be an attempt to copy Lotus's two-stop strategy didn't quite work out, with Hamilton pitting for a third time with 15 laps remaining.
That additional stop dropped him to sixth but a forceful late move on his former friend Adrian Sutil at Turn Nine brought him back up to fifth and he just about held off a charging Webber in the closing laps.
Sutil, largely by dint of the fact he was the first driver outside the top-ten free to start on the more durable medium tyres, enjoyed an unusually high-profile afternoon with the Force India man twice leading the field through longer first stints.
Raikkonen wins in Australia
However, needing to switch to the supersofts for the final 11 laps, the German increasingly ran out of grip and ultimately fell to seventh - although it still marked an impressive return to F1 action after a year's absence and meant he finished ahead of team-mate Paul di Resta.
Indeed, both Force Indias achieved better results than either McLaren driver as the Woking team's dismal weekend concluded with a sobering ninth-place finish for last year's winner Jenson Button and 11th for new arrival Sergio Perez.
Indeed, from winning the final two grands prix of last season, the challenge facing McLaren to get their problematic MP4-28 into some sort of competitive shape was underlined by the fact Button finished over 80 seconds behind the race winner.
For Lotus, that early advantage bodes ominously well for the 18 races and nine months ahead.