MELBOURNE, March 17 (Reuters) - Force India's Adrian Sutil showed he had lost little of his race craft after a year out of Formula One by finishing seventh in the Australian Grand Prix on Sunday and engaging in an enthralling battle with former close friend Lewis Hamilton.
Sutil was dropped by Force India at the end of 2011 in the wake of a night-club brawl in Shanghai that led to an 18-month suspended jail sentence and 200,000 euro ($261,300) fine for the German for grievous bodily harm.
Eric Lux, the then-chief executive of Renault F1 (now Lotus) team owners Genii Capital, needed stitches for a neck wound caused by a champagne glass in that fracas.
The incident caused a fall-out between Sutil and Hamilton, who had won the Chinese Grand Prix for McLaren and was celebrating at the night-club.
Sutil branded Hamilton a "coward" in German media for declining to appear as a witness in his trial and the pair have yet to mend fences.
The background added spice to their skirmish at Albert Park, where Sutil emerged a surprise leader in the latter part of the race when higher-profile rivals slipped back as they changed rapidly degrading tyres.
"Leading a Grand Prix, it's a great feeling," Sutil, who took over Nico Hulkenberg after the German left for Sauber, told television reporters.
"First race (and just) three weeks (since) when I know I'm back in Formula One, I just had three test days in Barcelona and it couldn't be a better start really.
"It showed that everything is possible and you have to believe in it."
Although driving a slower Mercedes-powered car, Sutil fended off Hamilton's works Mercedes as the Briton made a number of passing attempts before returning to the pit to change his tyres on lap 43.
Sutil's minor triumph was quickly extinguished, however, as Lotus driver Kimi Raikkonen overtook him moments later and stormed to victory on only two changes of tyres.
Sutil changed to a third set of tyres a few laps later but his bold challenge ended when his fast-degrading super soft tyres slowed his car in the final laps.
His British team mate Paul di Resta also had a solid start to the season with an eighth-placed finish.
"I feel a bit robbed of a seventh place given the way our strategy panned out and where I was in the final stages," Di Resta said. "But seventh and eighth for the team is quite good."
Force India, still chasing a maiden win, slipped back to seventh in last year's constructors championship after managing sixth in 2011, and hope to be the 'best of the rest' outside the five leading teams.
Bob Fernley, deputy team principal, poured cold water on any top-five ambitions for the Silverstone-based team, co-owned by drinks tycoon Vijay Mallya.
"No, I don't think so," Fernley said. "McLaren are struggling a little bit at the moment but they will come back strong.
"What we've got to do is take advantage of the opportunity while they are struggling and hopefully it will give us a cushion for maybe the sixth place which is what we have got to get back again." ($1 = 0.7654 euros) (Editing by Alan Baldwin)