Amidst squandered opportunities and misfortune it took Lotus eighteen races to finally climb to the top step of the podium in 2012. This season it’s taken just a single race for Kimi Raikkonen and Lotus to emerge as championship contenders as the Enstone based team nailed a perfect strategy in tricky conditions at the Albert Park Street Circuit in Melbourne.
Wet weather forced the postponement of qualifying until Sunday morning and although Q2 commenced in damp conditions, the climax to Q3 was dry enough for slick tyres. There was a grim inevitability about the final result as Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber comfortably locked out the front row, ahead of the impressive Mercedes W04 of Lewis Hamilton. Felipe Massa narrowly edged out Fernando Alonso with Nico Rosberg in sixth. Raikkonen lined up in seventh; good, but not great…
The demise of HRT meant that only twenty-two drivers would line-up for the opening round of the year but even that number wasn’t met. Eleventh placed qualifier Nico Hulkenberg failed to start the race after Sauber discovered a fuel system problem in his C32. It continues Hulkenberg’s woeful record in Australia; at least in 2010 and 2012 he lasted almost a whole lap…
When the lights went out it was predictably Vettel who bolted into the distance, stretching out a two second lead by the end of the opening lap. Equally predictably Webber bogged down and found himself languishing in seventh place, his hopes of a home podium extinguished yet again although this time a faulty ECU was to blame. Even more predictably, a KERS issue struck one of the Red Bulls in the opening stint (clue: not Vettel). While Webber was probably pondering what he has to do to buy some home fortune, Massa swept ahead of Hamilton into second place, and Alonso soon inched ahead of his former team-mate as well. Raikkonen moved up to fifth place, which soon became fourth once he usurped Hamilton’s Mercedes.
The race quickly developed into a four way fight between Vettel, Massa, Alonso and Raikkonen as the leading quartet bunched up as their option tyres rapidly expired. All four pitted within a few laps of each other but emerged behind the Force India of Adrian Sutil. The German returnee started the race from twelfth place on the harder compound tyre and was now embedded among the leading group. The order remained Sutil-Vettel-Massa-Alonso-Raikkonen throughout the stint and the Force India’s tyre preservation meant that Sutil made his first stop while the victory contenders headed to the pits for their second stop. Alonso pitted a lap before Sutil and Vettel, leapfrogging both while Vettel slipped ahead of his compatriot a lap later. Alonso’s rapid out lap combined with the advantage of the undercut enabled the Spaniard to build a comfortable gap to Vettel. Team-mate Massa stayed out a couple of laps longer by which time his pace was dropping and he fell behind Alonso.
But in all of the action between two Germans and two Ferraris, a certain Finn was emerging for the win.
Raikkonen stayed out until Lap 34 and it was clear he was opting for a two stop strategy in the Lotus E21. Once Alonso and Vettel pitted it left Raikkonen with a comfortable advantage, although Alonso quickly ate into Raikkonen’s lead. The Spaniard’s fresh tyre benefit receded and he gradually slipped further behind the Lotus. A late mistake by Alonso and a near collision with a lapped Caterham saw him settle for second place, twelve seconds down on Raikkonen. For the Finn it was a second victory since his return to the sport at the start of 2012, taking his twentieth win to equal compatriot Mika Hakkinen.
“I’m happy for the team and for myself also,” he said. “I made a few places at the start and then had a good battle with Lewis [Hamilton] but after that it was quite simple; probably one of my easiest wins. You can’t start the season much better than winning the first race and of course we hope we can be fighting at the front of the Championship, but there’s a long way to go still and we need to keep pushing hard all the way.”
Vettel never looked like challenging Alonso but had a decent gap back to Massa, expressing mixed feelings as he began his title defence with a podium.
“I think you’re always a little disappointed when you start first and don’t finish first, but overall it was a good weekend for us,” he said. “We had a good day today with a pole and a podium – but in the race we were a little too aggressive with the tyres and lost the front and the rears, while others did a little better. There are always areas where you can improve, but the result we got today is fair. We didn’t see Kimi on the track, he was too quick and Fernando jumped us at a vulnerable time – but we can be happy with third.”
Sutil’s strategy meant that he still had to run the option tyres and pitted with twelve laps remaining. The Force India badly struggled on the red banded tyres and he slipped behind Hamilton and Webber, but nonetheless finished his comeback race in seventh place. Team-mate Paul di Resta was eighth, slightly miffed at his strategy.
McLaren faced a multitude of problems with their MP4-28 and their worst fears were realised in the race. Jenson Button – something of a Melbourne specialist – could manage only ninth, some eighty seconds down on race winner Raikkonen. Team-mate Sergio Perez made progress from fifteenth on the grid to finish just two seconds down on Button but was outside of the points. “Very few 11th-place finishes have been harder earned or better deserved than Checo’s was today”, quipped team Principal Martin Whitmarsh. It was a dismal weekend for McLaren and Whitmarsh added that his team’s 2012 challenger, the MP4-27, could be called into action.
The McLarens were split by Lotus’s Romain Grosjean, who believes his poor pace was down to an unknown problem in the car, while Jean Eric Vergne was twelfth in the sole surviving Toro Rosso. Rookies Esteban Gutierrez and Valtteri Bottas never troubled the points but did well to finish a challenging weekend in thirteenth and fourteenth. Marussia’s progress was evident as Frenchman Jules Bianchi impressed on his way to fifteenth in the MR-02. Charles Pic, Max Chilton and Giedo van der Garde completed the finishers, the latter two making contact early on in the race that scuppered their strategies.
If Webber thought his home race was a disappointing then fellow Australian Daniel Ricciardo endured an awful race. The Toro Rosso racer likened the opening stint to ‘driving on ice’ and tumbled down the order, eventually retiring when the team wheeled his sick sounding STR8 into the garage. Like Nico Hulkenberg, namesake Nico Rosberg’s poor fortune in Australia continued as an electrical problem curtailed his progress when in the hunt for points. Pastor Maldonado feared Williams had regressed to their 2011 form after a difficult practice and qualifying sessions left him only seventeenth on the grid. This regression was matched by Maldonado who survived one trip across the gravel before clumsily braking on the grass and beaching his FW35.
It remains to be seen whether the opening race of the season will act as a benchmark for the remaining eighteen events. But what will be a concern to rival teams is Raikkonen’s relentless pace added to their tyre conservation. The Raikkonen of 2012 appeared to be lacking in overall sheer speed. The Raikkonen of the opening round of 2013 was not. The Iceman is well and truly in the hunt.