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Lotus flowers in Albert Park with Raikkonen victory

17 March 2013

After all the qualifying drama leading up to the green lights, the Australian Grand Prix itself proved a remarkable calm affair for the ice-cool Kimi Raikkonen, who kept his head and cruised into impressive control of the opening race of the new F1 world championship season, confounding many experts who had all-but written-off the chance of significant success for Lotus in 2013.

The race had got underway beneath skies threatening to burst open with still more stormy rain showers the likes of which had caused such disruption to qualifying on Saturday afternoon. However, despite rain first thing which had made the rollover Q2 and Q3 sessions so problematic for the teams earlier on race day, at least the Albert Park street circuit was now dry for them as the lights went out for the start of Australian GP.

Sebastian Vettel got a perfect start to his title defence and leapt away into the lead, but his team mate Mark Webber had a terrible time off the line and got swamped on all sides. Lewis Hamilton covered Fernando Alonso into the first corner but both were beaten by Alonso's team mate Felipe Massa; and as the cars traversed the opening lap it was quickly apparent that the Mercedes didn't have the race pace needed to stay in third place. Not only was Alonso soon past him, Hamilton was then placed under siege from the Lotus of Kimi Raikkonen, who finally succeeded in pushing past the Briton on lap two.



Vettel had initially pulled out a gap of two seconds over the field, but it was soon clear that he wasn't having things his own way as Massa started to make big inroads into that margin, taking Alonso with him so that by lap 7 a mere second covered all of the top three. Further back, Jenson Button had been the first driver to come onto pit road for a change of tyres on lap 5 having destroyed the supersofts in qualifying earlier in the day; Mark Webber, Romain Grosjean and Esteban Gutierrez were among those to come in next time by.

Vettel held out until lap 8 before he, too, needed a change to the harder medium compound tyres. Looking lighter on their feet were the two Ferraris and the Lotus of Raikkonen: Massa took the lead for a lap before covering Vettel by pitting on lap 9, and Alonso and Raikkonen were in one lap later, leaving Hamilton and his team mate Nico Rosberg in the lead in lieu of their own pit stops, with Force India's Adrian Sutil and McLaren's Sergio Perez also running ahead of Vettel - at least for a couple of laps, before the superior pace of those on fresher rubber started to show in spades and Perez found himself rapidly demoted to seventh place as Vettel and both Ferraris streamed past with ease.

Hamilton bowed to the inevitable and pitted from the lead at the end of lap 13, dropping to eighth place when he rejoined and Rosberg was in next time around, rejoining in ninth place right in front of Jenson Button and Mark Webber. That gave the lead to Sutil on his first race back in F1 after his year's hiatus. The Force India had started on medium tyres, and despite his waning pace on worn rubbers Sutil was still proving to be an intractable problem for Vettel, Massa and Alonso who were now running immediately line astern. That gave Raikkonen, Hamilton and Rosberg the chance to close up on the leaders, while further back Webber and Grosjean were the first cars to come in for their second round of pit stops from lap 19. Alonso decided he'd had enough of playing follow-my-leader and came in early in a bid to go off-sync and break out of the logjam building up behind Sutil.

Sutil himself was in two laps later, finally surrendering the lead to Massa; Vettel covered the move by following him in to pit lane. As the two came back on track it was clear that Alonso's early stop strategy had paid off and he barged past both the Force India and the Red Bull as Vettel had some initial problems slithering through turn 1 on the new set of Pirellis. The world champion was soon up to speed again though and on lap 23 he made a successful bold move on Sutil through turn 3 to finally rid himself of the bothersome Force India.

The first in-race retirement came on lap 25 when Pastor Maldonado lost the Williams into turn 1 and ran into the gravel where the car became emphatically beached. The Venezuelan wasn't the first driver out of the Grand Prix, however - Nico Hulkenberg hadn't even made it as far as the starting grid, his Sauber having stubbornly refused to fire up in time to head out and take up its place. The team blamed a fuel system problem and said that they'd withdrawn the car on safety grounds. The only other retirement of the day was Toro Rosso's Daniel Ricciardo, who retired in pit lane on lap 41 suffering from an audibly broken exhaust.

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 d├ębut, 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.

Something to think about in the five days before we're back on track for the second race of the season, at Sepang International circuit in Malaysia next weekend.


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