As the cars lined up on Sunday for the first race of the season, everyone was ready for a Red Bull clean sweep; a continuation of the dominance of the past two years. The tension in the race would be the gripping battle for third.
Right at the start however, Red Bull’s number two, the home boy, Mark Webber was back in the lower points positions after a bad start caused by an ECU failure recognised before the lights went out. There was nothing Webber could do as the whole pack of frontrunners swamped past him in the run to the first corner.
Yet at the end of the first lap Red Bull still looked set for an easy victory. Sebastian Vettel led by two seconds after just the first lap with both Ferraris, Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes and Kimi Raikkonen’s Lotus all in a pack further back.
After the third lap, it became clear quite quickly that Vettel was struggling much worse than his rivals with tyre degradation and his lead was reducing noticeably. The Ferraris, led by Felipe Massa, closed right on to the diffuser of the number one Red Bull but were unable to get past.
Lap seven saw Vettel enter the pits with Massa following a lap later and Alonso and Räikkönen two laps further still. The group all rejoined slightly further spead due to Vettel getting an advantageous undercut on fresh rubber. The two Mercedes of Hamilton and Rosberg however pitted a couple of laps later still, having decided to try a two stop strategy to overcome the lack of pace that had quickly dropped them from contention.
Vettel and the two Ferraris closed in on Adrian Sutil, who had not yet pitted, his Force India taking beautiful care of its precious tyres; an advantage gained from being allowed to start on the medium tyre for qualifying outside the top ten.
Vettel soon found he was unable to pass Sutil, and with Massa unable to overtake Vettel and Alonso stuck behind him, Alonso made the pit on lap 20. This would give him an undercut which, if he used it properly, would allow him to surpass Vettel and Massa but meant a risky long stint on the delicate tyres.
A lap later Red Bull responded by bringing in Vettel whereas Massa was unwilling to risk the longer than optimum stint his team mate had risked. The lap on fresh tyres allowed Alonso past both Vettel and Sutil into the clear air. He used this privilege to close in on leader Raikkonen, who then pitted on lap 34 to rejoin fifth. With everybody but Sutil requiring another stop, suddenly the race became a duel between Alonso and Raikkonen.
After Alonso’s third and final stop on lap 39, the Spaniard closed in rapidly for a couple of laps on the Lotus of Raikkonen. However, he quickly realised his Ferrari was not going to be able to retain this pace to close in on Raikkonen, a theory quickly confirmed when Raikkonen fired in a fastest lap on older tyres than Alonso had.
Raikkonen later crossed the line with his hands aloft, a rare expression of emotion from the laconic Finn. It was a superb performance from the wheel of a superb car. In a year when tyre degradation looks likely to play a huge role, it firmly placed Lotus as realistic championship contenders; however much they and their star driver denied it.