Early blossom for Raikkonen's Lotus
KIMI RAIKKONEN has made taciturnity a fine art, but even the famously repressed Finn managed a few fist-pumps for the Melbourne disciples as he celebrated an extraordinary victory in the Australian Grand Prix that sent Lotus into raptures and shredded the Formula One form-book at a stroke.
Stirling Moss had once said of Raikkonen: "Quite frankly, Kimi is the fastest driver in the world."
The verdict was, on the evidence of this masterpiece of strategy, difficult to dispute.
Just 12 months after returning from his two-year sabbatical in a rally car, the 2007 world champion scattered all doubts with a consummate drive that cemented himself and Lotus as genuine title contenders this season.
The dead-eyed Scandinavian with ice in his arteries savoured his coronation here at Albert Park. He almost forced a smile atop the podium, toasting his triumph by 12 seconds over Ferrari's Fernando Alonso, and again when he departed the circuit to adulation from the adoring crowd.
Sebastian Vettel, who had appeared a runaway favourite to win after sealing his 36th career pole in a Red Bull front-row lockout, finished a surprise third, while Lewis Hamilton secured fifth as Mercedes team-mate Nico Rosberg retired with electronic failure.
Lotus' audacious decision to send out Raikkonen on a two-stop strategy made this an engrossing spectacle. Given the rapid degradation of the Pirelli supersoft tyres, success was far from assured, but the winner reflected upon his feat with typically glorious understatement.
"It was a pretty nice race," he shrugged. "It was one of the easiest I have had for the win. Of course, I had doubts because it is the first race and you don't know how the tyres are going to be. I have had a good car all weekend, and in the end we got it exactly right."
What should concern the competition most, quite apart from Raikkonen's prodigious pace after starting seventh on the grid, was Lotus' ability to propel him to this result with the "most judicious tyre", Alonso acknowledged, after Ferrari had to resort to three stops.
"We have to analyse. We didn't have the pace to fight with Kimi – he was too fast for us," said the Spaniard.
While outwardly monosyllabic, Raikkonen proved that he remained quite the showman with the visor down. He waited until the penultimate lap, no less, to unleash his fastest lap of the race as Alonso sought in vain to hunt him down.
Eric Boullier, Lotus' ecstatic team principal, said: "Kimi drove impeccably all weekend. He gave the team his all."
A measure of Raikkonen's brilliance yesterday was that team-mate Romain Grosjean slipped home quietly in 10th. If one is to count the Finn's equally tactical success in Abu Dhabi late last season, this marked his second win in four races.
Raikkonen pushed as Red Bull struggled to maintain their peerless qualifying pace.
The greatest surprise was the emergence of Force India, as Adrian Sutil twice seized the lead in the ever-shifting order, with both the German and Paul di Resta finishing in the top eight. Max Chilton, the British rookie making his debut for Marussia, ended the day a creditable 17th.
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 capitalised, as did the Ferrari pairing of Alonso and Felipe Massa.
But when Raikkonen assumed the lead on lap 23, as the rest of the front-runners made their second stop, he drove with a murderous intent. His car held up superbly 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.
The German, embarking upon his quest to become the youngest ever quadruple world champion, said: "Clearly there is a bit of homework to do on the tyres. But the naked pace was there."
Lotus have to survive with a far smaller development budget than Red Bull or Ferrari, and yet Raikkonen felt emboldened to claim his team could emulate their wealthy rivals and blow the 2013 title race wide open.
Although the heat and humidity of Malaysia next weekend promises a starkly different test, he said: "For sure money is a big thing, but we have a good plan."
Their template was one to which Raikkonen's pursuers had no answer. Mercedes experimented with two stops for Hamilton, who briefly looked as if he had a chance of the win, but the deterioration in his tyres was too great and he was forced to pit.
Alonso gamely gave chase in the final laps and Raikkonen, sensing his moment, held firm, even stretching his advantage.
Last March he had presented a T-shirt to the Australian audience bearing the words "I know what I'm doing". This was a performance to encapsulate, emphatically, the truth of the words.
(© Daily Telegraph, London)