Kimi Raikkonen came through from seventh on the grid to win the opening race of 2013 in Melbourne as Lotus judged their strategy to perfection. The Finn made his two-stop strategy work to see off the challenge of Fernando Alonso with Sebastian Vettel a surprisingly distant third after starting from pole position.
After months of anticipation, the opening race turned into an anti-climax for Nico Hulkenberg whose Sauber suffered a fuel system problem before the start. The other 21 drivers had no problems getting through turn one unscathed but Mark Webber’s start-line woes continued, dropping from second to seventh as his teammate romped into a two second lead. The Ferraris of Felipe Massa and Fernando Alonso leapfrogged Lewis Hamilton to complete the top three early on.
As expected, the super-soft tyres didn’t last long before being discarded with Jenson Button the first to pit on lap four while Vettel only made it three laps further before stopping. The Mercedes drivers stayed out and took the lead with Adrian Sutil up to third having started on the medium tyres and Force India would stun everyone by hitting the front on lap fourteen as the Silver Arrows finally changed rubber.
On his return to the sport, Sutil led on merit for seven laps before his mediums gave up. Encouragingly for Force India though, Vettel had been unable to make any impression on the back of the VJM06 and followed him in (and out) the pits on a third set of tyres. Red Bull’s expected domination had now disappeared out of the window as an early second stop had promoted Alonso ahead of the world champion.
Raikkonen’s strategy started to become apparent around half distance with the Lotus staying out on his second set of tyres. The two Mercedes went the same route but their race took a turn for the worse as Rosberg dropped out with an electrical failure while Hamilton was powerless to stop Alonso screaming past him prior to his second stop.
With Raikkonen making his second and final stop on lap 34, Alonso briefly regained the advantage but his third stop on lap 39 gave him a seven second deficit to make up in the final stint. In the opening laps on new tyres, it looked as though Fernando would make short work of the Lotus ahead but two factors swung the race decisively in Raikkonen’s favour.
Alonso’s progress was halted initially by Sutil who was heading for his final pit stop but once the Force India was out of the way, a squabble between Giedo van der Garde and Max Chilton cost him even more time, sending him back to square one, eight seconds in arrears. Although the Spaniard edged towards the leader in the latter stages, Raikkonen had matters under control and demonstrated his superiority with a 1:29.274, the fastest lap of all with three to go, and cruised to a 12 second victory.
Sebastian Vettel was a further ten seconds back in third but comfortably had the measure of Felipe Massa as Ferrari’s decision to prolong the third stint hampered the Brazilian. Lewis Hamilton salvaged fifth in the sole remaining Mercedes although his race didn’t go to plan either with the Briton forced into a late switch to a three-stopper.
After his nightmare start dropped him to seventh, Mark Webber spent much of the afternoon working his way through traffic with Button among those to hold him up along the way. Crucially the McLaren was jumped at the second round of pit stops and the home favourite would eventually work his way up to sixth, a second behind Hamilton at the finish.
Adrian Sutil’s hard work was unfortunately undone in the final stint with the German forced into a twelve lap run on the super-softs, a task that proved too tough in the end. Having emerged from the pits in fifth, Sutil had no answer to Hamilton and Webber on their medium tyres but he did at least hold off teammate Paul Di Resta in the final few laps for seventh.
A 7-8 for Force India left McLaren with the sixth quickest car on the day as Jenson Button claimed two points for ninth, the best part of a lap behind the winner. Jenson had the second Lotus of Romain Grosjean for company late on but held on by just over a second with Sergio Perez bringing the second MP4-28 home in eleventh.
Jean-Eric Vergne was setting incredible lap times in his final stint but a late mistake relegated him to twelfth, the last unlapped runner. Esteban Gutierrez pipped Valtteri Bottas to finish as the leading rookie in thirteenth while Jules Bianchi earned Marussia a comprehensive victory in their battle with Caterham, beating Charles Pic by a full lap. Max Chilton prevailed in his fight with Giedo Van Der Garde with seventeenth his ultimate reward.