SEPANG // Forget the gold stars signifying Lotus's trio of world championships. Also located on the back of Kimi Raikkonen's black shirt this week is a target. After the Finn's surprise, strategic victory at the season-opening grand prix in Australia last Sunday, he is the man the rest of the Formula One field are chasing.
Jenson Button, the McLaren driver, spoke yesterday of the possibility of Raikkonen winning the first four races. It was an off-the-cuff, hypothetical comment, but the fact that it focused on Raikkonen and not the usual suspects, such as Sebastian Vettel, the reigning world champion, or Fernando Alonso, who pushed Vettel to the final race of the year, speaks volumes.
Raikkonen, the 2007 world champion, barely had time to celebrate his 20th career win on Sunday, boarding a flight to Malaysia only a few hours after taking the chequered flag in Melbourne.
And he says nothing has changed inside the team as they prepare to return to the track today for the opening practice sessions of the Malaysian Grand Prix at Sepang International Circuit.
"We don't do anything different this weekend than we did in the previous race or last year," he said in his typically sombre style. "If people think that we are leaders, it makes no difference to our work, what we did or what we're going to do this weekend – or any other weekend. We try to do best and hopefully we can score some good points."
Raikkonen does not enjoy the heat and humidity of Malaysia, but his car traditionally does. The 33 year old finished fifth in the tropical wet here last year in what was only his second race since returning from a two-year hiatus. At the two hottest, driest races of the season – in Bahrain and Abu Dhabi – he finished second and first.
"Last year, we were pretty good when it was hot, and actually it was better for us, but obviously we haven't run in these kind of conditions and the winter has been very cold, so I have no idea," Raikkonen said. "But if it's anything like it was last year, we should be pretty OK. We have to wait and see how it goes."
Alonso arrived in Melbourne filled with confidence, having been provided a quick, well-balanced car by Ferrari. It was much in contrast to last year's machine and the Spaniard spoke of his ability to challenge Vettel's Red Bull Racing for the race win.
Yet despite edging ahead of Vettel after undercutting him on the pit-stops, he found Raikkonen in the lead and requiring one less stop. The Finn eventually finished 12 seconds ahead, however, Alonso takes belief from his performance and believes Ferrari can match Lotus in every department.
"I think the pace of the Lotus was very good, but nothing we could not do," Alonso, who has won here three times, including last season, said. "They had a very clean race with no traffic, with very good strategy, but the pace was nothing out of reach, so here we can fight a little bit closer."
This weekend's race – certain to be humid, likely to be wet – will provide a far greater insight into whether the world championship could possibly be headed for Maranello for the first time since Raikkonen claimed it for Ferrari in 2007, Alonso added.
"We have a more or less competitive car," he said. "In Australia, everything worked quite fine for us, but it is true Australia's circuit is a very strange and very unusual one. This weekend is, for us, a little bit of a confirmation; we need to confirm the car is performing well after some positive feelings in winter and some positive feelings in Australia.
"This is a very real test for us and again a podium will be a very good target to achieve."
Lotus will be hoping Romain Grosjean can also attend the party this weekend after a disappointing start to the season saw him finish more than 90 seconds behind teammate Raikkonen. The Swiss-born Frenchman blamed a technical issue for his lack of competitiveness, but qualifying is the key area to improve.
Grosjean started in eighth in Melbourne after lapping 1.5 seconds slower than Vettel, who took pole, and quickly found himself stuck in traffic.
"I'm looking forward to driving the car in free practice and feeling everything back to normal," he said. "In Melbourne, we were pretty quick on a single lap and in final practice we were [on the pace]. There is no reason why we were 1.5 seconds slower in qualifying and I don't think it will be the case again."
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