|© AP Photo/Mark Baker
Fernando Alonso's win at the Chinese Grand Prix on Sunday announced the Ferrari driver as a strong contender for the championship after a comfortable victory.
Alonso took the lead for good with 13 laps to go and won by ten seconds ahead of Lotus' Kimi Raikkonen. Pole-sitter Lewis Hamilton of Mercedes finished third, just two tenths of a second ahead the hard-finishing Sebastian Vettel.
Red Bull's Vettel retains the championship lead after three of 19 races, but his advantage is just three points over Raikkonen, with Alonso moving up to third, ahead of Hamilton.
So authoritative was Alonso's performance that his team was cautioning him in the closing stages not to push too hard, only for the Spaniard to reply that he wasn't. After the race, he said he won while retaining "some pace in the pocket."
"It was a fantastic race for us from the start," Alonso said. "There were no big problems and the tyre degradation was better than expected.
"In the two races we've finished we have got second place and victory, so our start of the 2013 season is very good. We are very optimistic for the rest of the season."
The victory was Alonso's 31st career win, tying him with Nigel Mansell on the all-time list, behind only Michael Schumacher, Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna.
In a race dominated by tyre strategy, the front three runners all used their strong early pace on the softer tyres to establish an early advantage and all pitted inside six laps.
While the likes of Vettel, McLaren's Jenson Button and Sauber's Nico Hulkenberg -- who all started on the harder tyres -- profited initially by moving to the front of the field, the early leaders used fresher rubber to reclaim the advantage in the latter half of the race.
Button finished fifth ahead of Ferrari's Felipe Massa. Toro Rosso driver Daniel Ricciardo put in a strong performance for a career-best seventh place, finishing ahead of Force India's Paul di Resta, Lotus' Romain Grosjean and Hulkenberg.
Raikkonen's effort in finishing second was made more creditable by the fact he drove most of the race with a damaged front nose and wing after crashing into the back of McLaren's Sergio Perez, who put the squeeze on the Finn, forcing him off the track, and then into the back of the Mexican's car.
"What the hell is he doing?" the furious Raikkonen shouted on his radio.
"That didn't help, but luckily it didn't affect too much the handling," Raikkonen said after the race. "Without the damage I would have been quite a bit faster."
Hamilton carried little expectation of victory into the race despite his pole position because the Mercedes cars had quickly degraded their tyres all weekend, so the Briton was thankful to finish on the podium.
"They were a little bit too fast for us," Hamilton said. "My tyres were shot at the end."
Defending champion Nico Rosberg of Mercedes and Mark Webber of Red Bull had rough outings.
Rosberg came into the pits four times and was forced to retire before reaching the halfway point of the race because of a problem with his rear anti-roll bar.
Webber -- who started from the pitlane after his car ran out of fuel in qualifying -- charged to 11th before crashing into Toro Rosso's Jean-Eric Vergne, pitting. Then he emerged with a poorly connected right rear wheel that came off before the lap was through.
Webber was penalised for causing the collision, with stewards relegating him three grid places at next weekend's Bahrain GP.
Sauber's Esteban Gutierrez received a five-place grid penalty for crashing into the back of Adrian Sutil's Force India on the fifth lap, ending the race for both drivers.
If not for a premature retirement in the Malaysian GP, Alonso would be the championship leader, but the Spaniard was not yet ready to claim he is the title favourite.
"It's a little bit too early to say," Alonso said. "We maybe need to wait until after the summer break to see the clear contenders.
"Lotus, Red Bull and Mercedes are in the same position as us -- I don't see anyone has an advantage."