Kimi Raikkonen played a two-stop strategy to perfection to win the season-opening Australian Grand Prix and secure his 20th career Formula One victory.
Lotus driver Raikkonen finished 12.4 seconds ahead of Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso in yesterday’s 58-lap race at Melbourne’s Albert Park circuit, with defending champion Sebastian Vettel of Red Bull in third. It was the Finn’s first win in Australia since 2007, when he went on to take the title.
“The team got the strategy perfect,” said Raikkonen, whose two stops for fresh tires contrasted with Alonso and Vettel’s three. “I could push when I needed and the car felt really good. Probably one of my easiest wins.”
In six of the past 10 years, the Melbourne race victor has gone on to clinch the championship. Raikkonen, 33, finished third in the standings last season after returning to Formula One following a two-year stint racing rally cars.
Vettel, seeking his fourth straight title, was third after starting from pole position. Qualifying concluded yesterday morning after heavy rain forced the postponement of Saturday’s second and third sessions.
“You’re always a little disappointed when you start first and don’t finish first,” Vettel said. “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.”
Felipe Massa finished fourth in the other Ferrari, ahead of Lewis Hamilton in his first race for Mercedes after ending a 13-year association with McLaren.
As happened with Raikkonen, Mercedes tried a two-stop strategy with Hamilton, though his car’s tire wear was too high and the 2008 world champion had to make an unplanned third trip to the pits and fell back to fifth. Red Bull’s Mark Webber was sixth in his home Grand Prix.
“The decision to convert to a three-stop strategy compromised Lewis relative to those cars who had gone for three from the start,” Mercedes team principal Ross Brawn said in a team statement. “The behavior of the tires is something we will have to think about and understand over the next days.”
After coming in for his second stop on lap 34, Raikkonen managed his tires to hold off Alonso and even pulled further away in the closing stages after taking the lead for good on lap 43. Seven drivers led the race.
The Finn, who stayed out a dozen laps longer than the other leaders, posted the fastest lap on the second-last circuit.
Adrian Sutil, who led at mid-race after starting from 11th place, finished seventh ahead of Force India teammate Paul di Resta. McLaren’s Jenson Button and Romain Grosjean of Lotus rounded out the points-scoring positions.
“It was the best start we could have had to the season,” said Lotus Team Principal Eric Boullier. “Not only is it a win, but the strategy we chose also worked. Reduced tire wear was one of the strengths of the car that we inherited from last season and it was useful because during Kimi’s second stint the other cars were starting to challenge a bit more.”
Sauber driver Nico Hulkenberg didn’t start yesterday’s race because of a fuel system problem. The German, who’d qualified in 11th place, has failed to finish in any of his three appearances at Albert Park after retiring in the 2010 and 2012 races.
The Malaysian Grand Prix, the second of 19 events in the 2013 season, is scheduled March 24.
“We hope we can be fighting at the front of the championship,” Raikkonen added. “But there’s a long way to go still and we need to keep pushing hard all the way.”