Sebastian Vettel dominated qualifying for the Australian GP so completely it was almost taken for granted he would win as he pleased. But even he admitted that he didn't see which way Kimi Raikkonen went.
Just as yet another period of Red Bull domination seemed imminent, the Milton Keynes team's rivals were relieved to find that Adrian Newey's latest car ate its tyres at a greater rate than some others and lacked the race pace of either the winning Lotus or the Ferraris, which also impressed in the hands of Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa. The fact that the dark horse won, and the favourite stumbled, suggests that the 2013 grand prix season could be as hard to predict as 2012.
The strength of Raikkonen's performance lay in his Lotus's ability to take care of its tyres, and the Finn was able to make a strategy of two pit stops work when neither Ferrari nor Red Bull could genuinely have considered that option. They plumped for three as the race went to plan for Raikkonen, who finished third in the championship last season. "Our plan was to do two -stop and it's always difficult to really know when to stop, and not doing it too early and not too late. We got it exactly right. I could save the tyres and I could go fast if I needed and I could really drive very easily. It was one of the easiest races I've done. Hopefully we can have many more of this kind," Raikkonen said.
It was not such a happy picture at McLaren, however, as both Jenson Button and new team-mate Sergio Perez struggled with their new cars. While Perez finished out of the points in 11th, Button took no comfort from his run to ninth.
"We're just not quick enough," the Briton said. "To get back to the front is not going to be while we're racing outside Europe. We didn't expect to get that many [points] but it doesn't really ease the pain.
"I think we're going to have a tough week. Malaysia is next weekend and we can't do too much before then. We're not suddenly going to be competitive," said Button. "If we came away from Malaysia with the same number of points, we'd be ecstatic – but that's not McLaren. We should be further forward. Hopefully we can understand the car a bit more after the race today and extract a bit more performance. It's going to be a long night doing the debrief."
Button's former team-mate, Lewis Hamilton, was satisfied on his debut for Mercedes, securing a strong fifth place for his new team. "I'm happy with our result. It's much better than we expected for the first race of the season," he said. "The car felt really good. We'd planned for two stops but converted to a three-stop strategy during the race. Now we'll look forward to Malaysia and hopefully build on this positive start with an improved performance."
"We've a good platform to work from. The car felt good and I enjoyed every moment. The only thing is we're going to have to figure out where we lost time to other people."
Vettel led confidently from the start, as Raikkonen soon slotted into fourth behind the Ferraris after disposing of Hamilton on the second lap. Raikkonen stopped for the first time on the ninth lap, then waited out Hamilton and upstart Adrian Sutil, who had started on the mediums, as Vettel and the Ferraris continued their duel. Alonso stole a march on Vettel and Massa by pitting early, on the 20th lap. Vettel and Sutil stopped on the 21st, and Massa plummeted from first to seventh after waiting too long, until the 23rd.
Raikkonen assumed the lead for the first time on the 23rd lap and held it until the 34th, when he made his second and final stop. That gave Alonso and Vettel some respite in the lead, then Sutil, as Alonso and Vettel made their final stops on laps 39 and 37 respectively. Crucially, Raikkonen then dispatched Sutil on the 43rd, and from then on he was home and clear.
"I knew that my car was quite good. It'd been feeling good all weekend and when we did the longer run it felt good," the victorious Raikkonen said. "I felt I had a good car and it turned out to be pretty good."
For a while it seemed Alonso might have a crack at the win, until Raikkonen demonstrated how much control he had. But the super-competitive Spaniard had to be delighted with a strong second place finish.
"Obviously it was a fantastic race, with fighting all through," Alonso said. "But at the end, I'm extremely happy. The car is responding well, we are competitive, so we have a very interesting season ahead of us."
Vettel was gracious in defeat, considering that he had plenty to ponder. "I have to admit I was quite surprised when I was still missing one position in my calculations because all the cars that I saw made sense but I never saw Kimi in the race. He ended up way ahead of us and then I saw him on TV, and then saw that Fernando was then second and that Kimi was leading. But I think we can be happy with the pace all weekend. The car left a very good impression. We seemed to just continue where we stopped last year. Obviously there's a bit of homework to do regarding the tyres, and I think a two-stop was out of our range today. So we'll see where we are next week."
Max Chilton was 17th on his Formula One debut, racing for Marussia. "I can now tick off the fact I have done an F1 race and brought the car home. That was the goal," the Briton said.