Most people thought returning world champion Kimi Raikkonen would be the main man for Lotus this season.
Not today, he wasn’t.
Another man coming back to F1, Romain Grosjean, upstaged his illustrious team-mate when he qualified third behind McLaren duo Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button.
Grosjean, 26, took part in seven Grands Prix in 2009 for the team then known as Renault but went back to the feeder GP2 category to complete his apprenticeship – and duly won the title.
“I’m a much more complete driver now,” he said when Lotus renewed their faith in him for 2012, and he made a huge step towards justifying that faith with his mature performance at the wheel of the E20 – in his first weekend as a fully-fledged F1 race driver here at Albert Park.
“Never give up!” grinned the Frenchman, “that’s the lesson. It’s not a dream – we really did it. I returned to people who believed in me through difficult times and today they were with me in the car.”
Grosjean gave notice of his intentions in the third and final free practice session, where he was only dislodged from top spot by Hamilton’s late surge.
He then missed out on a fairy-tale front-row start only at the very end of Q3 when Button fired in his own quickest time to lock it out for McLaren.
“It’s a fantastic job from everybody,” Grosjean stressed. “Today I’m very proud to be part of this experience with Lotus. A few people believed in me the first time and now I’m back, almost at the top.”
Nowhere near the top was team-mate Raikkonen, who could not even get the #9 Lotus out of Q1, which the Finn finished in 18th place, almost a full second slower than early pace-setter Kamui Kobayashi’s Sauber.
Meanwhile a breakdown and a mistake cost Raikkonen any chance of making a big statement in his first qualifying session since 2009.
The breakdown was in communications – he thought he had more time for another quick lap – and his own mistake then cost him any chance of getting through. One consolation: he has three sets of the Yellow (Soft) Pirellis still to play with.
One questioner asked Grosjean how it felt to be 1-0 against Raikkonen in their qualifying head-to-head.
“When you start qualifying,” came the retort, “you’re fighting against 23 other guys and thinking you are fighting for pole position – and to do that you have to beat everybody.”
And as he tried to wipe the grin from his face he went even further. “We’re planning to get in between these guys (Hamilton and Button) and even at the front – that’s the goal.”