Finn has Lotus blooming early this season as the former world champion repeats his success from Abu Dhabi last season with an impressive win at a damp Albert Park in the Formula One season opener. Gary Meenaghan reports.
Australian Grand Prix: 'Pretty nice' victory for Kimi Raikkonen as Finn holds off Alonso and Vettel
At Yas Marina Circuit, the Finnish driver, exasperated, told his race engineers to “leave me alone; I know what I am doing”, and within a week Lotus staff members were wearing T-shirts with those words emblazoned across them.
On Sunday, on a damp track at Albert Park, Raikkonen proved he is true to his word by winning a tight, strategic season-opening Australian Grand Prix to make a mockery of the form book and strike the first blow in the battle for the 2013 world championship.
The Finn started only seventh after a morning qualifying session that indicated Red Bull Racing would be the team to beat.
Yet any fears the new season would start with tedious predictability were dismissed as Raikkonen produced a perfect two-stop strategy to secure a surprise victory while Vettel slipped two places to finish third, behind Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso.
“One of the easiest races I’ve done to win a race,” Raikkonen said. “Hopefully, we can have many more of this kind.”
The famously straight-faced veteran allowed himself a smile as he laughed off talk of leading an hours-old championship after collecting his 20th career victory.
However, his team will take great confidence from the way the 2007 world champion controlled the car and cared for his tyres through the 58-lap contest.
Eric Boullier, the team principal, said he had “never” considered winning the race.
“We were confident to maybe score a podium, but definitely not to score a win,” the Frenchman said.
Yet Raikkonen operates on a different level, safe in the knowledge he has the ability to extract the maximum out of his machine.
Give him a hot car and the Ice Man will do the rest.
“Not the ideal starting place,” was how he described his seventh-place grid position. “But it was still 10 places better than last year, so not a disaster. I knew my car is quite good. It’s been feeling good all weekend.
“In a way, I was pretty confident – but, of course, you have to get through the start and the first lap. And it’s the first race, so you never know what’s going to happen with the conditions. And the circuit after the rain. And with tyres. So there’s a lot of question marks.
“I felt I had a good car, though, and it turned out to be pretty good.”
The king of the monotonous understatement strikes again.
Only five of the 18 cars classified as having finished employed a two-stop strategy, yet while Adrian Sutil at Force India experienced extreme tyre degradation that saw him slip from first to seventh in the space of 15 laps, Raikkonen in contrast looked after his Lotus’s tyres well enough to clock the fastest lap of the race two laps before the end.
“Fernando was catching me at some point, so I just wanted to make sure that if the rain comes we had a bit more gap,” Raikkonen said when asked about that lap.
“I was still taking it pretty easy,”
Alonso said he felt that while Lotus deserved victory for being “very quick and very consistent”, it is his more familiar rivals that remain the team to beat.
“Red Bull is the quickest car at the moment,” the Spaniard said. “First and second in qualifying, first and second in practice – nearly – and then in the race they saw a little bit of degradation, but that doesn’t mean that they are not the fastest.”
Vettel, who failed to win the season-opening race in 2010 and 2012 yet still went on to win the championship, was not downhearted after failing to convert victory from the front of the grid.
“Surely, when you start from pole, you want to win, but I think we can be happy with the pace all weekend,” the 24-year-old German said. “The car left a very good impression.
“The whole team seemed to operate very calmly and, considering it was the first race of the season, we seemed to just continue where we stopped last year.”
Competition, having lain dormant for three months, resumes in five day’s time in Malaysia.
Raikkonen is ready.
He knows what he is doing.