Melbourne: Nico Hulkenberg marked his return to Sahara Force India in style, finishing an impressive seventh to garner six points for the Siverstone-based outfit in the eventful season-opening Australian Grand Prix, on sunday.
Starting seventh on the grid, Hulkenberg managed to hold on to his position despite facing some tough challenges in the opening laps, and finished the race 50.7 seconds behind fellow German Nico Rosberg of Mercedes, who led from start to finish to win the season opener at the Albert Park.
However, the lady luck did not smile on Hulkenberg`s teammate Sergio Perez, who stopped just short of pocketing points in his debut for Sahara Force India.
Even though he failed to garner points, Perez impressed in his debut race for Force India and finished 11th, just 22.4 second behind 10th place Daniil Kvyat of Torro Rosso.
Rosberg, meanwhile, took the chequered flag 24.5 seconds ahead of Australia`s Daniel Ricciardo in his Red Bull debut. But Ricciardo faces the risk of disqualification from second place over fuel rules.
Kevin Magnussen, 21, became the first Danish driver ever to reach the podium by securing a brilliant third place in his Formula One debut for McLaren.
Jenson Button finished fourth in the second McLaren, while two-time world champion Fernando Alonso of Ferrari was fifth ahead of Williams` Valtteri Bottas, Hulkenberg and Kimi Raikkonen in the other Ferrari.
But it was a forgettable outing for defending world champion Sebastian Vettel and pole-sitter Lewis Hamilton, both of whom retired early due to power issues, as F1 witnessed a series of technical changes this year.
This year Formula One has shifted to quieter, turbocharged 1.6-litre V6 engines with hybrid components and a limit on fuel and the rate of fuel use.
Only 14 cars out of 22 finished the race in the eventful race, which witnessed a collision between Felipe Massa and Kamui Kobayashi in the opening lap, thus drawing curtains to their run before it had started.
Hulkenberg, meanwhile, was delighted with his start to the season, which incidentally was the German`s maiden finish at the Albert Park here.
"Seventh place is a positive way to start the season. Iwas very happy to see the chequered flag ? the first time I`ve done so in Melbourne ? and it`s important to score some good points early on," said Hulkenberg, who race the first 33 laps on soft tyres before completing the last 24 on mediums.
Hulkenberg, in fact, was fighting for fourth position throughout the race with Ferrari`s Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen.
"I made a strong start and enjoyed good track position for the first two stints when I was running up in fourth. The only real issue I had was some front left graining on the soft tyres, which never really cleared up and that compromised my first two stints. It was a shame to lose two positions at my second stop (to Button and Alonso) but it looks like some of the cars around us have a bit more pace at the moment," he said.
"I want to thank the team for the amazing job they`ve done over the winter and this weekend to get us to this point. It`s been a great effort and it`s nice to reward everyone with some points at the first race."
Even through Perez narrowly missed out on points, the Mexican was "satisfied" with his performance in the season-opener.
"I`m satisfied to finish the race, but disappointed not to score points. My race became very difficult on lap one when I got hit by the Sauber of Gutierrez at turn three. It gave me a puncture and I had to return to the pits very slowly, which dropped me to the back of the pack. After that I just tried to keep a consistent pace on the medium tyres and I was quite fortunate that the safety car came out, which helped me recover some positions," he said.
"Points were close, but my progress was hurt by beingstuck behind the Sauber of Adrian (Sutil) for such a long time. It`s positive to finish the race because it gives the team lots of information and hopefully that will make us stronger for Malaysia," Perez said.
Sahara Force India team principal and managing director Vijay Mallya was all praise for his drivers.
"Starting the season with points is what we were aiming to do so we`re happy with today`s result. Nico (Hulkenberg) drove an excellent race and was able to fight near the front for most of the race, eventually earning us six points. Sergio`s race was much more challenging with a puncture on lap one making it difficult for him to show the pace of the car. The safety car allowed him to catch up, but he just missed out on reaching the top 10," Mallya said.
"Overall we are pleased to see both cars make the finish in this new era of Formula One and we have learnt a huge amount. I congratulate everyone in the team for all their hard work over the winter and I look forward to Malaysia in two weeks` time where we will aim to build on what we learned this weekend," he added.