The anticipation helped. It always does. Two qualifying sessions postponed until Sunday morning because of rain didn’t do any harm either.
The armies masquerading as Formula 1 teams don’t like surprises and it’s rarely long before they knock the unexpected into shape. The first Grand Prix of a season, however, tends not to be a slave to the rhythms to come. New compounds and constructions, unproven relationships and untried processes, plus perhaps some unfashionable unreliability – they all add up.
To what exactly?
The Red Bulls locked out the front row on Pirelli’s super-softs. No major upset there. But the previous day’s running on wets and inters, and continuing cool conditions, air and track, guaranteed a tyre lottery come the race.
The ignorance helped, too. We weren’t to know that this factor would ultimately become too much of a lottery.
Vettel did his familiar ‘Jim Clark’ to establish a big lead by the end of the first lap. But then the Ferraris began to menace. Joy of joys, this was not going to be a runaway.
Already some drivers and their engineers were forced to think on the hoof. Hamilton, quick in qualifying on his Mercedes-Benz debut, was slower than anticipated in the race and switched from a three- to a two-stopper, and back again. F1 was in the mix.
The first stops came early: Vettel, his mirrors busy, and then second-placed Felipe Massa, to cover him. Wise old birds Fernando Alonso and Kimi Räikkönen, however, stuck it out a bit longer on super-softs.
The former was his usual punchy self, stiffing Hamilton for third with a brave move on the opening lap. The latter was stealthier but even more gainful, having qualified a low-key seventh. His Lotus felt good, manageable, under-him, and while Alonso continued his theme, this time with an early second stop to jump Massa and Vettel, Raïkkönen stayed out.
Alonso hustled and passed Hamilton again, then began to close on Räikkönen. The Spaniard was determined to be different, pressing to make ‘something’ work. The Finn, however, remained icy and calmly pitted as planned: he was two-stopping. Lighter tanks, a circuit less green and his experience and feel – could he make it work? You betcha boots! Rather than cling on, he rubbed it in.
Yes, Alonso was held up by the Force India of Adrian Sutil, on a different sequence of compound and making a perfectly acceptable ‘nuisance’ of himself at the sharp end, but he could do nothing about the leader.
Indeed, Räikkönen continued to stretch away and, on a final set of mediums that were 22 laps old, recorded the fastest lap. His victory was as comprehensive as it was welcome.
There was a distinct feeling that the podium – Räikkönen, Alonso and a not unduly upset Vettel – was an indicator of things 2013 to come: the right drivers, though not necessarily in the right order. For there was also an underlying belief that Lotus/Renault/Benetton/Toleman might not be able to keep pace during the ensuing development battle.
But for now there was a reality verging on unreal to be enjoyed. Räikkönen and his Trackside Operations Manager Alan Permane, on the podium to accept the constructors’ award, were all smiles.
They’d earned it: wins and mutual respect are worth more than money.