KIMI RAIKKONEN has made taciturnity a fine art, but even the famously repressed Finn managed a few fist-pumps for the Melbourne crowd as he celebrated an extraordinary victory in the Australian Grand Prix that sent Lotus into raptures and shredded the pre-season form-book.
Many had wondered aloud how fast the 2007 world champion would be upon returning from his two-year sabbatical in a rally car, but Raikkonen scattered all doubts with a consummate drive that cemented himself and Lotus as genuine championship contenders this season.
He almost forced a smile atop the podium, toasting his triumph by six seconds over Ferrari's Fernando Alonso. Sebastian Vettel, who had appeared a runaway favourite to win after sealing his 36th career pole in a Red Bull front-row lock-out, finished third, while Lewis Hamilton had to be content with fifth after Mercedes team-mate Nico Rosberg went out with electronic failure.
With typically glorious understatement, Raikkonen reflected: "It was a pretty nice race, not too difficult. It was one of the easiest races I have had for the win." The 33-year-old, explaining the virtues of Lotus' bold two-stop approach, said: "I have had a good car all weekend. I thought it should be easy to do it. I had doubts, because it is the first race and you don't know how the tyres are going to be." What should concern the competition most, quite apart from Raikkonen's prodigious pace throughout, was Lotus' ability to propel him to this result without the more widely-used three-stop strategy. "It is a worry," Alonso acknowledged, after Ferrari had to resort to three stops. "We have to analyse." While outwardly monosyllabic, Raikkonen proved that he remained quite the showman with the visor down. He waited until the penultimate lap to unleash his fastest lap of the race as Alonso sought in vain to hunt him down.
Amid capricious conditions in Melbourne, which brought periodic bursts of rain, the race was never less than riveting as Raikkonen pushed and Red Bull struggled to maintain their peerless qualifying pace. The greatest surprise were Force India, as Adrian Sutil twice seized the lead in the ever-shifting order, with both the German and Paul di Resta finishing inside the top eight.
From the outset it was clear that this would not be another exhibition of Red Bull supremacy, as Mark Webber slipped on the first corner from second to seventh. Raikkonen rapidly took advantage, as did the Ferrari pairing of Alonso and Felipe Massa, underlining a significant increase in the *Scuderia*'s competitiveness from 12 months ago.
With Lotus managing his tyres with maximum care, Raikkonen assumed the lead on lap 23 as the rest of the frontrunners made their second stop. His car held up brilliantly under strain, just as it had in 2012, when he was the one driver to complete every race. Vettel, by contrast, began to suffer with his tyre wear and fell backwards, despite possessing demonstrably the quickest car.
Mercedes experimented with two stops for Hamilton, who briefly looked as if he had a chance of the win, but the tyre degradation was too great and he was forced for a third time into the pits. Alonso gamely gave chase in the final laps but Raikkonen, sensing his moment, held firm. Last March he had presented a T-shirt to the Australian audience bearing the words, "I know what I'm doing", and this was a performance to encapsulate the truth of the words.
- by Oliver Brown Telegraph.co.uk