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MELBOURNE, March 17 (Reuters) - Kimi Raikkonen gave Lotus a dream start to the Formula One season on Sunday with a winning strategy carried out to perfection in the Australian Grand Prix.
The 2007 world champion's victory was the second of a comeback that started last season and his second in Melbourne since his triumph with Ferrari in the year of his championship success.
No one in the Lotus camp was getting carried away enough to suggest a repeat of that feat was on the cards this year, not least the famously taciturn but hugely popular Finn.
Even so, the sight of Raikkonen pulling away from Ferrari's Fernando Alonso and the Red Bull of triple champion Sebastian Vettel with the fastest lap of the race as the chequered flag beckoned was surely more than the team could have hoped for.
"It's fantastic, the best start you can ever dream of," said team principal Eric Boullier.
"We dreamed about it. When we were working on strategy we knew our car would possibly allow us to do only two pitstops. This morning again after the quali, we were just watching the car in parc ferme and saying 'maybe it's possible'."
Raikkonen executed the plan in a Lotus which proved easy on the tyres, a critical advantage that allowed him to stay out on the track while his rivals were forced to make extra pit stops to change rubber.
"There were a lot of question marks," said Raikkonen. "But I felt I had a good car and it turned out pretty good.
"It's always difficult in the first race not to stop too early or too late but we got it exactly right. We had a good plan and it worked perfectly for us.
"Hopefully we can have many more wins."
Raikkonen made just one stop when he won his first race for Lotus in Abu Dhabi last year, a victory which the British-based team said showed they were a serious outfit and which also added to the Finn's popular appeal.
In that race, Raikkonen told his race engineer to leave him alone on the team radio, adding "I know what I'm doing."
On Sunday, with Ciaron Pilbeam making his debut as the voice in Raikkonen's headset after years working with Mark Webber at Red Bull, the Finn again showed he knew what to do and needed little guidance.
The 33-year-old, who had taken two years out of the sport to try rally driving and NASCAR before joining Lotus, helped them to fourth place in the constructors' standings and finished third in the drivers' standings last season.
Sunday's victory, from seventh on the grid, was another huge boost to the team as Raikkonen started his second year with the British-based outfit who won multiple championships under their old names of Renault and Benetton.
It was also the first season-opening win by a team called Lotus since American Mario Andretti, who went on to take the title that year, triumphed in Argentina in 1978.
"I had a very good car all weekend even though I didn't do any long runs in the winter," said Raikkonen, whose 20th career win equalled the tally of double world champion compatriot Mika Hakkinen.
"You just have to get through the early laps in the first race of the season. Near the end, I was still pushing because I knew Fernando was catching up a bit and I thought at some point we would need a little extra if the rain came again.
"It's only the start of the season, there is a lot of work to do if we want to fight for the championship."
That he was able to beat the Red Bull of three-times champion Vettel so convincingly on Sunday was a surprise not only to Raikkonen's rivals.
"I have to share with you that we also were expecting the domination of Red Bull," said Boullier. "Even if we knew that it would maybe struggle more with the tyres. But at the end we are happy that we could do it." (Editing by Alan Baldwin)