March 17th, 2013 (F1Plus / Chris Cameron-Dow) - Kimi Raikkonen has won the season-opening Australian Grand Prix for Lotus, ahead of the Ferrari of Fernando Alonso and Red Bull of Sebastian Vettel.
The first Grand Prix weekend of 2013 had already delivered plenty of drama before the race even began. Qualifying was disrupted by heavy rain, to the extent that Q2 and Q3 were postponed until Sunday morning. The second and third sessions of qualifying proceeded without a problem, but having qualifying on race day restricted the amont of time available to the teams to deal with any issues on their cars. Sauber discovered a fuel system issue on Nico Hulkenberg's car shortly before the race, and did not have enough time to make the necessary repairs. As a result, Hulkenberg did not start the race.
21 cars lined up on the grid and surged off the line when the lights went out. Pole-sitter Sebastian Vettel led into the first corner followed by a fast-starting Felipe Massa and the Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton. Fernando Alonso soon passed Hamilton into third place and set off after his team-mate. Meanwhile, Kimi Raikkonen had made a fantastic start and passed Hamilton on lap 2 for fourth place.
The race was defined by tyre management, with the teams not knowing how long they would be able to make their tyres last, particularly as the track was not well rubbered-in after heavy rain. Early pitstops from the Red Bull, Ferrari and Lotus drivers demonstrated that the supersoft tyres were wearing quickly on heavy fuel for the leading teams. The exception to that was the Mercedes pair of Hamilton and Rosberg, who managed to run four laps longer than their rivals in the first stint of the race.
Adrian Sutil showed the benefit of having a choice of tyres for the start of the race, as he used the medium tyres from 12th on the grid to lead the race before making his first stop on lap 21, and looked for most of the race to be in with a chance of a podium in a surprisingly competitive Force India. Sutil's race fell apart when he put the supersoft tyres on at the end of the race and immediately suffered from heavy graining. He lost positions to Hamilton and Webber and eventually brought his car home 7th. The other Force India of Paul Di Resta finished 8th, after a solid race without too much drama. It was a positive result for a team that was moving forward at the end of 2012 and seems to have carried that momentum into 2013.
Raikkonen drove flawlessly, pushing when he needed to and preserving his tyres the rest of the time. It helped that the Lotus appears to be very kind to its tyres, which allowed Raikkonen to make only two pitstops compared to the three of Alonso and Vettel who completed the podium. Raikkonen was his usual relaxed self on the podium, showing very little emotion, but commenting that he was very happy with the car.
Ferrari were confident ahead of hte start of the season, and with good reason. Alonso and Massa each led for periods of the race, and Alonso's second-place finish was convincing, although he did not quite have the performance in the latter stages to challenge Raikkonen. Massa lost time around his second pitstop, and eventually finished fourth, the strongest start to a season he has had for some time. The F138 seems to be a competitive and driveable car, and with the resources they have, Ferrari can be expected to develop it well throughout the season.
Sebastian Vettel was supreme in free practice and qualifying, and at the start of the race streaked away, but he could not maintain the pace during the race. Both Vettel and Webber appeared to struggle with tyre wear, and the Red Bulls were generally among the first to stop in each round of pitstops. That being said, the Ferraris went through their tyres quite quickly, but had a small performance edge over the Red Bulls. Vettel's third place is a solid if not spectacular start to his title defence. The same cannot be said for Mark Webber, who had a typically slow start and then had to fight to an eventual 6th place. His car was capable of more, but the poor start compromised his challenge right at the start.
After Lewis Hamilton's long first stint, it looked like he might make a 2-stop strategy work for a strong result, but his tyres could not quite last well enough, and after locking up heavily while battling with Fernando Alonso, Hamilton made his second stop earlier than planned. As a result, he had to make a third stop, which put him out of the running for a podium. Hamilton finished fifth in his first race for Mercedes. His team-mate, Nico Rosberg, was running on much the same pace as Hamilton before an electrical fault stopped his car on the track.
The McLarens of Button and Perez continued to struggle in the race after a dismal weekend in general. Button had just squeaked into the top ten in qualifying, and he managed to improve one place to ninth in the race, but suffered such heavy tyre wear that he was the first driver to make a pitstop. Sergio Perez looked almost helpless when defending under braking, such was the lack of performance in his car. He spent the last few laps of the race battling with Romain Grosjean for tenth place, but could not find a way past and finished 11th, just behind the Frenchman in the second Lotus.
Williams had a weekend to forget. After finding themselves surprisingly slow in practice and qualifying, there was also no race pace, and the car was visibily difficult to drive. Pastor Maldonado spun off after putting a wheel on the grass under braking for turn 1, and Valtteri Bottas could do no better than 14th, a lap down and closer to the pace of backmarkers Marussi and HRT than to the other midfield runners. Sauber will similarly want to move on from a disastrous start to the season, as only one of their cars made the start, and Gutierrez could do no better than 13th in his debut race.
Toro Rosso had a fair start to the season, with Jean-Eric Vergne finishing 12th. Daniel Ricciardo retired from the race with 19 laps to go, with a reliability issue, which is not what the team will have wanted, but the pace shown by both drivers in the race was good, with each setting fastest laps during the early part of the race.
At the back of the field, Marussia and Caterham were, as expected, not in contention for the midfield positions and certainly not for points. Jules Bianchi was extremely impressive on debut, finishing 15th, only a lap behind the leaders and ahead of both Caterhams and his team-mate Max Chilton. Charles Pic came home 16th, showing his experience by comfortably beating Chilton and Van der Garde, but finishing a full lap behind Bianchi in the leading Marussia.
The Formula One circus now moves on to Malaysia for the second race of the season next weekend. The tight schedule means the teams have virtually no time to develop their cars before the next race, so they will simply have to make the best of the equipment they already have. Formual One fans will be hoping for another race as action-packed and interesting as the Australian Grand Prix proved to be.