Australian GP: Easy-going Kimi Raikkonen could be a contender

Kimi Raikkonen

An engrossing Australian Grand Prix, packed with action from beginning to end and culminating in an impressive win for Kimi Raikkonen and Lotus, got the new Formula 1 season off to a highly-promising start in Melbourne on Sunday.

Raikkonen's victory, from seventh place on the grid, was hard-fought and well earned, in a car that is fast and able to look after its tyres. The team looks like being a major title contender this year.

The race result seemed up in the air until 10 laps from the end. Raikkonen, who took the lead for the second and final time when he passed Adrian Sutil's Force India with 15 laps to go, looked at that stage under serious threat from the flying Ferrari of Fernando Alonso behind him.

Raikkonen, 33, had done only two pit stops for fresh tyres while Alonso, whose Ferrari pitted three times, had set a series of fastest laps both before and after his final stop.

But once the Spaniard was himself past Sutil - soon to plummet to seventh place as a result of abusing the super-soft tyres he had to use for the latter part of the race - Raikkonen turned the screw and Alonso could not keep up.

Kimi Raikkonen

The 20th victory of Raikkonen's illustrious career was not only one of the most impressive but also, he said, one of the easiest.

"We got it exactly right," he said. "The team worked extremely well, we had a plan and we followed the plan and it worked out perfectly for us. I could save the tyres and I could go fast when I wanted. It was one of the easiest races to win. Hopefully we can have more races like this."

On this form, that seems a given.

Raikkonen was keen to point out afterwards that it was only the first race and there was a long way to go in this 19-race championship that runs until the end of November, but it was clear from both his manner and his remarks that he feels a title challenge is very much on.

Famously taciturn, Raikkonen was almost chatty after the race, and it is unlikely to have been as a result of the glug of champagne he took - typically in character - before he sprayed the victory magnum on the podium.

"Of course I am happy we didn't have to go full speed all the time, which is a good sign, but it might be a completely different story in the next race," he said at one point.

But he also said that he had been confident of doing well despite his relatively poor grid position - the result of an over-cautious lap that included a mistake in the drying conditions of Sunday morning qualifying - and, most strikingly, was prepared to discuss the possibility of winning the championship.

To do that, Lotus will have to keep pace in the development race with better-funded Ferrari and Red Bull, which they did not quite manage in 2012.

Despite that, Raikkonen still finished third in the championship last year, and this year the car seems to be in better shape in terms of ultimate performance while also maintaining its strong point of being kind to the tyres.

No wonder Alonso admitted after that race that the Lotus's performance was "a worry".

But Alonso, too, looks in good shape. His was a typically aggressive, feisty drive as he took advantage of bringing his second pit stop forward to jump a train of cars that were holding him up, vaulting into second place.

Ferrari are clearly in far better shape than they were at this stage last year, and given that he was able to take the title fight to the final race then, he must at this stage be considered a major contender himself.

One of the cars holding Alonso up in the first third of the race was the Red Bull of Sebastian Vettel, the man who narrowly beat him to the title last year. The Red Bull's race performance - or more precisely the lack of it - was a surprise.

Through practice and qualifying Vettel, beginning his campaign for a fourth consecutive title, had looked unbeatable. Friday had suggested he had at least half a second on anyone else, and in qualifying he duly put the car on pole from team-mate Mark Webber by 0.42 seconds - and was 0.68secs faster than the first non-Red Bull.

And when Vettel takes pole, a victory normally follows as surely as night follows day.

Before the race, I mentioned to Jenson Button that it looked like Vettel was going to run away with it. "You've obviously not seen his tyres," Button replied. "They're knackered."

So it proved. Vettel bolted off the line into his customary two-second lead at the end of the first lap but that was as far as he went.

The Ferraris, initially led by Felipe Massa quickly hauled him in, and were clearly being held up.

The Red Bull's outright performance is foreboding, but in Australia its tyre management - particularly Vettel's - was poor.

Webber was unusually better on his tyres, but the Australian was stuck down in the midfield and unable to show his pace after a dreadful start caused by an electronics failure that also temporarily shut down his Kers power-boost system.

The same, to a degree, was true of Vettel. He spent 10 laps stuck behind Sutil but even team boss Christian Horner admitted it made no difference to his end result.

Horner said Vettel's problems were caused by his tyres being out of their operating window, and he hoped it would be different in the hotter conditions of Malaysia next weekend.

Even if not, it is inconceivable that a team of Red Bull's quality will not get on top of the problem and the car's pace is not in doubt.

"Lotus were very quick in the winter," Alonso said, "and they did a fantastic weekend and deserve the victory. But the Red Bull is the quickest car - they were first and second in practice and qualifying and they suffered a little bit in [tyre] degradation in the race but it doesn't mean they are not the fastest."

Given that Lewis Hamilton's impressive pace in qualifying faded with high tyre wear in the race - a problem that also afflicted Mercedes last year, albeit in different form - it is hard, on the evidence of Australia, not to think that the three men who are most likely to contend this year's title were those standing on the podium at the end of the first race.

And few would be surprised if the one on the lowest step turns out to be the most formidable. Again.