Vitaly Petrov made a little piece of F1 history as the 2011 campaign opened on the streets of Albert Park by becoming the first Russian to stand on a grand prix podium in 61 years of the world championship.
After battling to keep his seat in the Renault line-up last season, the second-year driver turned in by far his most complete performance in Australia, qualifying sixth before producing a rapid start to claim fourth on lap one. From there he chased, and traded places with, Mark Webber as their pit-stop strategies unfolded, eventually getting the better of the local hero by dint of making one fewer stop for fresh tyres.
And, although he came under pressure from Fernando Alonso, the man who harried him to the flag in last season's Abu Dhabi finale, in the closing stages, the Russian held firm, seeing off the Spaniard's challenge to cross the line just over a second clear of the double world champion in third place. The result bettered that obtained under similar pressure from Alonso in November, and provided Petrov with his first silverware as an F1 driver.
“I will sleep with this tonight!” he told the BBC
, beaming at the iconic steering wheel trophy presented to the podium drivers in Australia, "I'm delighted to be here on the podium, especially after the winter that we had as a team, which was very tough.
“Alonso was a little way back, [but] I knew there were still five laps to go, so I tried to push a little bit - but not too hard as I needed to save my tyres. Everything was just great!”
Although team-mate Nick Heidfeld was unable to add to the team's tally, Petrov's result came as a welcome fillip after an off-season that saw team-mate Robert Kubica top the opening test session and then almost lose his life in a rallying accident before the second.
“He did a great job, and it's a good reward for the team, as well, because they had a very tough winter," team principal Eric Boullier echoed, "Vitaly made some good progress during the winter. Knowing the pace of Robert, he could have been better, he could have been worse, but I don't want to think about the 'if' – we need to think about the future, and we need to think about how to get back [on the podium] again.”
Kubica apparently sent a message of congratulation to his team-mate via Boullier, but Petrov was keen to share the limelight with the rest of the squad.
"Even during testing, we didn't really know where we were compared with the others, but we continued adding new parts to the car this weekend, and they worked pretty well," he commented, "I made a great start today, which was probably the key for my race because it got me ahead of Alonso and [Jenson] Button, and I was able to run in some clean air and push hard, as well as looking after my tyres."