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."

Both Renault drivers made two stops for tyres, along with the majority of the field, running two stints on the softer Pirellis before ending the race on the more durable option. Despite that, Petrov set his fastest lap time on lap 55, while defending third place from Alonso.

"Our two-stop strategy was clearly the right decision and we made it work," he commented, "I have to say a big thanks to everyone in the team for working so hard and for supporting me over the winter. This result is for all of us and I'm totally ecstatic."

"I'm utterly delighted for everyone in the team because it has not been easy getting here," technical director James Allison added, "I would be lying if I said I thought we'd earn a podium like we did today, but Vitaly's place looked very good in qualifying and we knew we were competitive. We thought we were in with a shout of a good fight with the Ferraris, and we did exactly that. Going forward we will have more aero updates for the car in Malaysia, which are worth a few extra tenths and should allow us to build on our strong showing today."

Team-mate Heidfeld was less satisfied, as his poor qualifying performance on Saturday hampered his attempts to get into the points. Despite moving up the order early in the race, damage he suffered in the usual first-lap melee prevented him from making any further progress, and the German had to settle for 14th.

"Today was a tough race," he sighed, "I'm obviously disappointed not to finish in the points, but it just wasn't possible, especially after I got hit on the first lap. It's a shame because I had made such a good start from 18th to twelfth by the first corner.

"The damage to the car was quite severe, mostly to the right hand bodywork, sidepod and engine cover, so it wasn't a strong race for me at all. However, I'm pleased for the team and Vitaly that we have this excellent result today. It shows that we have a competitive car and that we can fight hard this year."

"The podium today is a huge relief and a big reward for all the work which has been done by all the team - and obviously I am very happy," Boullier concluded, "It shows that the decision we took to be aggressive with the design of the car was the right call, and it's something we can build on going forward.

"Vitaly's performance was very strong and it shows that we can deliver strong results this season. In fact, I have no doubt that both our drivers can be fighting towards the front at the next race and that we can build on the competitiveness we have shown this weekend."



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