Kimi Raikkonen took his maiden victory with Ferrari at the Australian Grand Prix, leading from pole to flag in virtually untouchable fashion. It's the Finn's first win since Suzuka 2005 and he barely put a foot wrong for 58 laps of Albert Park. Behind Raikkonen, the McLarens could never get close enough to threaten.
Fernando Alonso spent much of the race trying to get the better of rookie teammate Lewis Hamilton, who had passed the Spaniard at the start. However, Alonso's experience and strategy won out and he beat Hamilton to second in the last pit stops. But young Hamilton proved to be a real star and scored his first podium, third, in his very first race.
It was a sunny clear day for the race, with a track temperature around 40 degrees at the start. As Felipe Massa suffered a gearbox problem in the second qualifying session and did not set a time, Ferrari decided to change his engine. That meant the Brazilian incurred the 10 place grid demotion penalty and went from 16th to the back.
For once it was a clean start in Melbourne with no incidents, although Anthony Davidson's Super Aguri was very slow off the grid. Raikkonen got away at the front but Alonso lost out; Nick Heidfeld's BMW went past and Hamilton whipped round the outside of his world champion teammate to grab third, leaving Alonso fourth.
Ralf Schumacher's Toyota made up a place to eighth and Takuma Sato's Super Aguri briefly got the advantage of the second Toyota of Jarno Trulli but dropped back to 10th again. Further down the field, Jenson Button's Honda made up ground to 13th, as did Heikki Kovalainen's Renault to 11th. Massa sprinted off the back row up to 18th.
Davidson had dropped from 11th to 21st due to his slow getaway but his woes didn't end there. Contact with the Spyker of Adrian Sutil sent the Super Aguri up in the air but they both escaped and managed to continue. Honda's Rubens Barrichello made up a couple of places to 14th and Red Bull's David Coulthard did the same to 16th.
Once things settled down a bit, Massa started making his way through the field, his next target Coulthard dispatched fairly swiftly. However, he then got stuck behind the pair of Hondas for quite some time which didn't help. Apparently Barrichello was complaining on the radio that he was faster than Button ahead, but none of them were breaking free.
Of the others in the field, Nico Rosberg's Williams was 12th and teammate Alex Wurz 17th, followed by the Toro Rossos of Scott Speed and Tonio Liuzzi, the Spyker of Christijan Albers then Sutil and Davidson at the back after their unfortunate meeting, Davidson's car with some damage.
Hamilton had a minor excursion into the dust but kept his place, while Raikkonen was already seven seconds ahead of Heidfeld by lap nine. So held up by the Hondas, Massa was lapping around four seconds off the pace of Raikkonen but seemed unable to do anything about the 'earth cars' in front of him.
Albers was the first retiree when he skidded across the gravel an into the tyre barrier at turn three. He was unharmed and it was simply driver error. "I was struggling with a cable in the earplugs that was stuck," he explained. "I was trying to sort it out and missed the braking point, and that was it."
The Toyotas were sticking together nose to tail, Schumacher ahead of Trulli, and Heidfeld was the first to pit about lap 14. Reportedly most drivers started on the hard tyre but Heidfeld went on the soft and switched to the harder compound in his initial stop. He rejoined the field seventh.
Barrichello finally dispatched Button for 13th which gave Massa his chance to have a go and he duly did the same not long after. Raikkonen's lead was 15 seconds by the time he took his first visit to the pits -- leaving Hamilton in the lead -- and he rejoined fourth behind the McLarens and Kubica. Fisichella also stopped and split the two Toyotas on his return.
Kubica used his stop to gain advantage on teammate Heidfeld and came out in front. Alonso was the first McLaren in and Hamilton a lap later and they retained formation with Hamilton ahead. Meanwhile, Massa was up to 10th then gained another couple of places when Kovalainen and Rosberg visited the pits.
There was quite a string of cars in the midfield all very close, the Williams', Toyotas, Kovalainen and Coulthard, but there was not really any overtaking going on. Drivers have previously said that the rev-limited engine would not encourage overtaking -- or maybe it's just that Albert Park isn't an easy circuit to do it.
Massa finally pitted about half way through the race and rejoined in 10th. Button's difficult afternoon was added to by a drive through penalty for speeding in the pitlane and Sutil was similarly penalized for not heeding the blue flags. Raikkonen was in a world of his own at the front, 17 seconds in the lead.
Speed was the next to drop out, due to tyre problems."By the end of the first stint I was pretty much at the pace of the guys right in front of me, but I was struggling to keep the wheels on the track," said the American. "Then, after the first pit stop the situation got worse and I had a bit of understeer, because evidently, we had a slow air leak in both front wheels."
After the first pit stop shuffle the points running order was Raikkonen, Hamliton, Alonso, Kubica, Heidfeld, Fisichella, Schumacher and Rosberg, while Kovalainen and Massa rounded off the top 10. Rosberg made a rather strong move on Schumacher and made it stick to take seventh place from the Toyota.
Kovalainen was having a bit of a wild time, several trips into the dust and gravel under his belt but he still managed to keep going. Kubica, on the other hand, did not; the BMW suddenly slowed on track and began creeping back to the pits to retire with a gearbox problem. A shame for him and BMW as it had been going well.
Massa had to suffer the indignity of being lapped by Raikkonen but as the Brazilian had started at the back and Raikkonen at the front, it was a bit inevitable. Massa did manage to unlap himself later though. Heidfeld led the second round of pits stops and Kovalainen had an off-track spin that he remarkably managed to rescue, but lost a place to Massa.
Raikkonen belted out a few fastest laps then took his second stop, once again rejoining behind the McLarens. Mark Webber, who had a bit of an anonymous race, managed to spin his Red Bull in the pit entry for some unknown reason. After his notable seventh in qualifying, Webber had slipped back down to the midfield.
Hamilton was the first McLaren into the pits and that was where Alonso gained the advantage. The Spaniard stayed out another couple of laps and it was enough to be ahead of his teammate when he rejoined after his stop. To be fair, Hamilton had been hampered by Sato on his in lap, which lost him time.
However, once Alonso was ahead, he pretty quickly widened the gap between himself and Hamilton. There was no chance of catching Raikkonen, who was some 14 seconds ahead. Massa was up to sixth and closing on Fisichella but the laps were starting to run out. With only eight to go two more cars went out.
Coulthard took a bit of an ambitious dive up the inside of Wurz' Williams at turn three in the hope of 13th place. There was contact and the Red Bull went up in the air and across the cockpit of Wurz' car, which must have been a bit of a rude surprise for the Austrian. Coulthard ended up stuck in the gravel and Wurz couldn't continue either.
"In fairness I was coming in too fast for the corner so I don't think Alex can take any blame," Coulthard admitted his own error. "You have to take the opportunities when they are there and that was one opportunity that didn't work out! I take responsibility for that one."
At the front of the field Massa was harassing Fisichella and Kovalainen was equally frustrated with Trulli but the last lap was upon them and that was that. A superb drive from Raikkonen in his first race for Ferrari, he really couldn't have done it any better. Ferrari looks on top form and if not for Massa's gearbox issue he would probably have given McLaren more problems.
"Today the race was not as easy as it might have looked," said Raikkonen. "Just before the start my radio broke so I didn't have a radio the whole race so it was a bit complicated but at least before the race we had a plan what we wanted to do so I knew pretty much what I was meant to do, but in some places it wasn't an ideal situation. Anyhow, it was a good race for us. I didn't have to push too hard, just have to pace myself a bit and look what the others were doing: an excellent start."
While McLaren didn't quite have the edge of Ferrari, it's certainly a much healthier picture for the Woking squad than last year. Alonso doesn't seem totally comfortable with the car but put in an impeccable drive anyway, but it was Hamilton that stole the McLaren show. It will be intesting to see how the comeptition develops between the teammates.
"I think the Ferraris were a little bit too quick today for us," Alonso conceded. "We have to take maximum points that we can from Australia and second place is a good place to start the season. For sure, we have to work a little bit more if we want to win races but as I said to the team, today we proved that we are here to win, not to race only and relax. We saw a good potential in the team today, and I'm looking forward to the next race."
Hamilton made one or two little mistakes but for his first race it was a stellar performance. "I was ecstatic," he said about how he felt on the podium. "I still am. To be in my first Grand Prix, something I've been working on for so many years, all the hard work has paid off. I'm just extremely happy for myself and also for the team. I think it's a great starting point, a great foundation for the rest of the season."
BMW was on for a double-points finish until Kubica's retirement, which was disappointing but Heidfeld came home fourth after a calm and collected drive. Whether he could have got ahead of Kubica under his own steam we never got to find out, but overall for BMW it was a very encouraging start.
Fisichella was fifth and Kovalainen 10th -- not too bad but not too impressive either. Fisichella's engineer seems to be forever on the radio telling him to hurry up and Kovalainen was a lot more erratic than expected. Renault seems not even on BMW's pace, never mind Ferrari and McLaren, but it would be rash to judge on only one race.
Massa made the best of a bad situation and came from the very back to score three points in six. If not hampered by the Hondas early on it could have been better but that's the way it goes. Rosberg had a quietly impressive race to finish seventh and Schumacher was the last to pick up a point in eighth.
Trulli was one behind in ninth. It was a fairly miserable day for Honda, Barrichello 11th and Button 15th, but encouraging for Super Aguri with Sato 12th and Davidson reaching the chequered flag for the first time in 16th. Webber came home 13th, Liuzzi 14th and Sutil was the final classified finisher, 17th.
For the opening race of the season, Melbourne was mostly entertaining and answered a few questions. But, of course, it raised a whole new batch as well and we won't get any more answers until Malaysia in three weeks time. Final top eight classification: Raikkonen, Alonso, Hamilton, Heidfeld, Fisichella, Massa, Rosberg, Schumacher.