Emulating team-mate Vitaly Petrov's result from Melbourne and finishing third in the Malaysian Grand Prix gives Nick Heidfeld reason to believe that Lotus Renault GP can be a factor in 2011.
Although the Enstone team caused the occasional surprise in 2010 in the hands of Robert Kubica - the man Heidfeld is reluctantly replacing following the Pole's pre-season rally accident - its new R31 raised a few eyebrows in testing and is now carrying its form forward into the races, with Petrov a worthy third in the season-opening Australian GP and Heidfeld benefiting from a strong start to claim his first podium in two years at Sepang.
"The start was fantastic, good fun," he enthused after going from sixth to second at the first corner, "In Australia, I made up many positions on the start, but I didn't expect the same happening when starting from sixth rather than 18th, or whatever it was in Australia. I found myself actually fighting with Sebastian [Vettel], who watched me in the mirror and just paced himself to keep me behind. After that, I did the best I could, but Sebastian was quite a bit quicker."
Despite being unable to keep up with the eventual racewinner, Heidfeld was suitably encouraged by the performance of the Renault, noting that, despite both drivers making it into the final phase of Saturday's knock-out session, it appears to be better in race conditions that in qualifying.
"Some cars are better on long runs than others," the German mused, "That's what will be more crucial this year with the Pirelli tyres, because there's more degradation. It seems we already had a better pace in the race in Melbourne than we had in qualifying. On top of that, I think this weekend was not easy for us because we lost a lot of time on Friday and we definitely didn't have the perfect set-up and there's probably a bit more to gain there in the future.
"Vettel and Red Bull [are] the team to beat, I think that's obvious. They've been the quickest for the first two races. I think McLaren have done a very good job, having finished where they have in the first two races compared to winter testing, but I also like the fact that I'm asked, being a Lotus Renault driver, if [Red Bull] is the team to beat. Unfortunately, at the moment, I think we are a bit too far behind. On the other hand, we made some good progress, we finished two races on the podium, so we hope to keep the momentum going."
Although his flying getaway elevated him to second, Heidfeld's hopes of remaining there to the end were scuppered by a problematic first tyre stop - one already delayed because of the uncertainty over rain affecting the race - and he had to battle back up the order to secure the podium. The German admits that he was fortunate to have gained some positions, but also had to keep the second Red Bull of Mark Webber at bay over the final couple of laps.
"In the first stint, there were some drops coming down and I called the box to say my tyres were going off, but they said 'stay out, there might be rain coming, so we don't want to do an extra pit-stop'. Then our stop was not perfect, [we] lost one or two positions and, after that, I was a bit lucky with Fernando [Alonso], who lost his front wing or damaged his front wing and had to do an extra stop.
"I had some good pace later on, especially on the prime tyres - similar to the McLarens probably - but had to defend from Mark towards the end when he came flying by. But I think, once he was behind me, his tyres also started to degrade. I used my KERS just in places where I needed to defend. He came close - there were big, big steps as I guess he was on quite fresh tyres - but then he must also have started to get some degradation and, luckily, that was enough to keep him behind me. I don't think he had KERS, did he, and that was a big help for us in defending.
"It is great to come third. A second podium for Lotus Renault is a great step forward from last season."