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Lotus flowers in Albert Park with Raikkonen victory

Minutes later, there was an even more significant retirement form the race: Nico Rosberg, running in third place, suddenly pulled over at turn 4 and the Mercedes cruised to a halt with some form of mechanical issue, reviving concerns about the car's reliability in 2013. His team mate Hamilton - now running second to Kimi Raikkonen after Massa pitted at the end of lap 23 - must have started to fear every rattle and squeak he could hear over the whine of the V8 engine as he battled to stay ahead of Fernando Alonso

As the race reached half distance, some light rain started to fall in parts of Albert Park with the teams warning their drivers to expect a very short shower, but no one was remotely inclined to pit for intermediates. Instead, Hamilton was in for new medium slicks on lap 31, earlier than hoped for after he had locked up and burned through the old set in a final vain attempt to hold off Alonso for position.

That released Alonso to go after Raikkonen. Although the Lotus had a 16s lead over the Ferrari, it was on end-of-life tyres and Alonso was soon carving into that gap by setting fastest laps of the race. Raikkonen could see the danger and pitted on lap 34, which put him back out in fifth behind the close-running leading pack consisting of Alonso, Vettel, Sutil and Massa. Behind him there was a comfortable eight second safety cushion between him and Hamilton in sixth place followed by Webber, Button, Grosjean and Jean-Eric Vergne.

The question now was who had to make a further stop, assuming that the significant rain held off. Among the leaders, Raikkonen was the only one with a chance of making it to the end on his current set of tyres, while Massa was in at the start of lap 37 and Vettel followed suit next time around which dropped him back to fifth place. Within minutes there was a stream of further visitors to pit lane as Webber, Button and Grosjean all took the hint.

Alonso came in on lap 39, once again leaving Adrian Sutil minding the store - quite an impressive way for the German to mark his return to the sport. Even though he still had to make his own final stop and mandatory stint on supersofts, the Force India driver was looking good for some big points ahead of many of those who had started the day as much more fancied front-runners. But Sutil was also compromising Kimi Raikkonen's run, the Finn now keenly aware of the speedy Ferrari of Fernando Alonso baring down on him in the rear-view mirror.

Raikkonen finally made his move and took the lead on lap 43 and took off, trying to put some clear air between him and Alonso. Three laps later, Alonso made his own DRS-assisted move past Sutil on the run down to turn 3, and Force India decided to throw the dice and gamble on calling their man in for an earlier than expected change to the supersofts with ten laps remaining.

With all the planned pit stops now complete, the running order on lap 48 was Raikkonen nearly eight seconds ahead of Alonso, and then Vettel ahead of Massa who was 14 seconds ahead of Sutil who had rejoined back in fifth place just ahead of Hamilton, Webber, Paul di Resta and Jenson Button, with Romain Grosjean rounding out the top ten. But the early supersoft gamble failed to pay off for Sutil, who lost fifth place at turn 9 on lap 50 and then dropped another place to Mark Webber just a minute later. Now Sutil had to beware his own team mate, as di Resta was closing fast form behind, and the pressure was on the German to salvage as many world championship points as he could from what had looked such a promising Grand Prix just a few minutes before.

Despite more light showers blustering over Albert Park, there were to be no further shocks and twists to what had been a rollercoaster weekend: Raikkonen has the race well in hand, even putting in a late fastest lap just to underline his superiority, and he duly crossed the line to claim the chequered flag a comfortable distance ahead of Fernando Alonso, the first time a Lotus had won the world championship season opener since 1978. It had many wondering whether divine intervention might even have played a part, since the last three Grand Prix races held after a Papal conclave had resulted in victories for either the original Lotus marque, or in 2005 by Renault - the team which now bears the Lotus name.

Sebastian Vettel joined the pair on the podium, but the expected dominant pace of the Red Bull hadn't manifested in the way that most people had been expecting. Massa finished a strong fourth ahead of Hamilton in his Mercedes début, just holding off sixth-placed Mark Webber to the line. Adrian Sutil was able to hold onto seventh ahead of his team mate di Resta, and Jenson Button came home in ninth place despite a late drop-off in pace. A strangely anonymous Romain Grosjean was able to thwart Sergio Perez's spirited late-race attempts to put the second McLaren into the top ten.

So what does Australia tell us about the way the 20-13 world championship will go? In all probability, very little - the weather had made too many things subject to pure chance for anyone to be sure of how the teams stood relative to one another, although there seems little doubt now that McLaren is indeed in a dire state. But Lotus capturing a win so early in the season was a surprise to almost everyone - they'd hardly shone in pre-season testing, after all - and Raikkonen must now be considered a serious contender for the title against the likes of Vettel and Alonso. After all, in the last 17 seasons, the winner in Melbourne had gone on to clinch the championship on no fewer than 11 occasions.





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