Kimi Raikkonen blew away the opposition in Melbourne today and took a commanding victory in the first round of the 2013 FIA Formula One World Championship.
The Finn made just two pitstops while his rivals struggled with the fast-degrading Pirelli tyres and opted for three stops.
The win is Raikkonen’s second in Australia; he won there in 2007 with Ferrari, going on to secure the world title.
The race began in dry but overcast conditions, and it was pole-sitter Sebastian Vettel who made the perfect getaway to lead into the first corner. His team-mate Mark Webber however, who started 2nd, bogged down with wheelspin off the line and dropped behind Felipe Massa, Fernando Alonso, Lewis Hamilton, Nico Rosberg and Raikkonen. Despite there being five rookies in the field starting their first Grand Prix, there were no incidents on the opening lap which has been notorious for claiming victims in the past.
Vettel did not streak away as had been feared by many fans, and was quickly under pressure from the impressive Massa and chasing Alonso. Lewis Hamilton couldn’t stay with the leaders and dropped further and further behind during the opening stint.
Jenson Button, who started 10th for McLaren in the woefully uncompetitive MP4/28, was the first to pit from 9th place after just four laps on the softer Pirelli tyre, claiming his rubber was ‘destroyed’ after qualifying and that McLaren had planned to pit early on in the race. His actions prompted a flurry of pitlane activity with Mark Webber also bailing out early.
Vettel eventually blinked and pitted on lap seven, swiftly followed by Massa a lap later, before Alonso and Raikkonen came in on lap nine. Hamilton and Rosberg elected to stay out in a bid to make just two pitstops, which ultimately failed; the duo admitted defeat and pitted on lap twelve and thirteen respectively.
For the second race in a row this left a Force India car in the lead, Adrian Sutil running on the longer-endurance harder tyres after qualifying down in 12th place. Sutil eventually took to the pitlane on lap twenty-one, but, disastrously for Vettel who had been losing time stuck behind his compatriot, Red Bull also chose that lap to make the World Champion’s second stop; he was compromised and re-joined behind Alonso and the Force India with Massa breathing down his neck. Hamilton pitted again on lap thirty-one before things went from bad to worse for Mercedes. Nico Rosberg was out, retiring from the race with a battery failure.
When the field shook itself out it emerged Raikkonen was intending to make just two stops, causing consternation amongst his rivals who knew their cars were harder on their rubber and could not possibly go the distance without making another pitstop. When Raikkonen made his second and last stop on lap thirty-four, Alonso and Vettel knew they would have to push to make up the difference. Vettel however quickly fell away from the Ferrari, his Red Bull RB9 unable to avoid destroying its tyres with the immense levels of downforce being produced.
The Red Bull stopped again on lap thirty-seven, while Alonso elected to go an extra 2 laps before making his own pitstop. Raikkonen caught and passed new leader Sutil on lap 43 and never looked back, claiming his 2nd victory for Lotus and his 20th career win in fine style. Sutil had switched to the (theoretically) faster, softer tyre for his final push to the flag but after just 3 laps his car was fish-tailing wildly, the German losing fistfuls of time in his effort to repel the attacks of Lewis Hamilton who was on a late race charge. Alonso crossed the line in a fine 2nd with Vettel not too far behind, a valiant effort from Massa netting him 4th place and a valuable 12 points.
Hamilton eventually passed Sutil for 5th, while Paul Di Resta was less than pleased to be told to remain behind his struggling team-mate and plumped for 8th; Mark Webber had recovered from his earlier misfortune and overtaken the Force India man soon after Hamilton to snatch 6th. Jenson Button persevered with the difficult McLaren and was 9th, with Romain Grosjean ending the day in 10th, over a minute down on his triumphant team-mate. Max Chilton finished his first Grand Prix in 17th after a race-long battle with Giedo Van Der Garde in his Caterham.
“I’m happy for the team and for myself also. We’ve had a quick car all weekend and there were no issues with it either, so we could just focus on trying different things and getting the setup how we wanted.” said the race-winner.
“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.”
Pat Fry, Ferrari chassis director, had this to say on the tyre question: “Maybe we could have risked a two stop strategy, but given the unknowns linked to tyre degradation, we preferred not to do that. In the next races, it will be vital to understand the tyre behaviour, in order to choose the best strategies.”
Paul Di Resta, although downhearted to have been on the receiving end of team orders, saw the upside in a race that saw his team climb to 5th in the constructors championship: “There are a lot of positives to take from the race, as well as some things that we can improve to make the car stronger, but we’re in a good position heading to Malaysia.”
“Seventh and eighth for the team is a great result and a great way to kick off the season. We’ve shown we have a car that is kind on its tyres and that helped us today by making less stops than some of our rivals.”
Despite breaking the 1000-point barrier in his career this weekend with 9th place, 2012 Australian GP winner Jenson Button claimed his points ‘did not heal the pain.’
” Having said that, I think we should be pretty satisfied with what we achieved here in Melbourne today. It was a tricky race, and our car isn’t yet quick enough, so I think the team did a great job to achieve even as much as we did.”
“Looking forward to Malaysia next weekend, I think we’ve got a tough few days ahead of us, but hopefully we can now do some number–crunching in an effort to understand our car a bit better and extract a bit more performance out of it there.”
Lewis Hamilton’s day was considerably better in his view: “I’m happy with our result today and it’s much better than we expected for the first race of the season. The car felt really good out there; I had a strong first stint and was able to make the supersofts last longer than most of the others. We’d planned for two stops but converted to a three-stop strategy during the race. I don’t quite know where we lost the ground to the cars ahead so we’ll have a look at the race again now and figure it out.”
British rookie Max Chilton was pleased to have seen the checkered flag in his debut race: “Although the race had its frustrations, I feel like I’ve learned a lot that I perhaps wouldn’t have learned otherwise and that will be useful experience over the next few races. I’m looking forward to Malaysia now so I can roll all that back into my racing and be able to take the fight to the midfield pack.”
But perhaps the last word should go to Lotus Team Principal Eric Boullier:
“I’m very happy. After Kimi’s great start we were hoping that we could achieve a podium finish, then as the race unfolded and we saw the other teams pitting – showing that they were on three-stop strategies – our position became stronger and stronger. It’s a fantastic feeling to open the season in this way. Kimi drove impeccably all weekend and gave the team his all.”
“This win is a further testament to all the hard work which goes on at Enstone and we owe tremendous thanks to each and every employee. We head to Malaysia in the best position we could be.”
Should Kimi take a second win next weekend, those that placed bets on a Finnish World Champion come season’s end will be rubbing their hands with glee…