Kimi Raikkonen marched to his second victory since making his Formula One comeback with a commanding drive at the Australian Grand Prix.
The Lotus driver, who returned to F1 at the start of 2012, won a chaotic Abu Dhabi late last season but his victory in Melbourne as much smoother affair, made possible by his ability to work a two-stop strategy while his chief rivals opted for three visits to pit lane.
Starting from seventh, Raikkonen’s first pit stop came on lap nine when he discarded the supersoft tyres he had started with for the medium compound Pirelli.
Then, while those ahead felt the need to stop in a spell around lap 20, the Finn continued to pound around Albert Park until lap 34 with no detriment to his lap times, a stint which pushed Raikkonen towards the front of the field.
The Lotus driver took the lead on lap 42 when he muscled past the two-stopping Adrian Sutil and thereafter powered to victory ahead of Fernando Alonso and pole winner Sebastian Vettel.
“I’m happy for the team and for myself also,” Raikkonen said afterwards. “I had a good feeling that we would be OK with the tyres after practice and the team got the strategy perfect.
“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,” he added. “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.”
Alonso’s race from fifth on the grid to second place was predicated on a clever second stop on lap 20.
The Ferrari driver first visited pit lane on lap nine to discard his super soft Pirellis and then, as the field bunched behind Sutil, Alonso decided to make an early stop for a second set of medium tyres.
The strategy worked in his favour and the Ferrari driver was able to leapfrog team-mate Felipe Massa and Vettel when they made their stops. His progress to the second step of the podium was completed when he muscled his way past Sutil just after his lap 20 pit stop.
“It was fantastic race, with fighting all the way through,” said Alonso. “I personally enjoyed it. Obviously at the end it was a little bit sad not to be able to win the race, but Kimi was fantastic today – the Lotus car as well. We need to congratulate them for a fantastic race.
“Arriving here and fighting for the podium was the aim of the team and the goal of this winter, to reduce the gap and to arrive at the start of the season with a competitive package. I think the goal was achieved,” he added. “In the winter the car felt good and the understanding of the car was good so being on the podium here is some kind of job done, let’s say.”
Vettel’s race, meanwhile, was a case of what might have been. Having claimed the 37th pole position of his career in the morning’s deferred qualifying session, the Red Bull Racing driver held his lead through Turn One at the start and began to open a gap, albeit a narrow one as the twin Ferraris of Felipe Massa and Fernando Alonso clung on behind him.
Vettel’s lead unravelled in the second stop, however, as Alonso jumped ahead and thereafter it was a case of damage limitation as Raikkonen stretched away and Alonso pursued the Finn.
“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.”
In the closing stages Sutil’s charge faded and having been passed by the podium trio, the returning Force India driver made a second stop in a bid to improve his pace on new tyres. The attempt was in vain, however, as he was passed firstly by Felipe Massa and later by Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton and Red Bull Racing’s Mark Webber.
The Australian driver made a poor start to his home race, dropping from second to seventh but then fought back to finish sixth, overcoming a KERS failure in the first part of the race and a slow first pit stop which saw him plummet to 17th.
With Webber sixth, the final points scoring places were filled by Sutil in seventh, eighth-placed team-mate Paul Di Resta, McLaren’s Jenson Button and Romain Grosjean, who finished tenth in the second Lotus.