MELBOURNE, Australia — Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel opened his Formula One title defense by driving a flawless race and beating McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton to win the season-opening Australian Grand Prix on Sunday.
Starting from the pole, Vettel maintained his lead after the first turn and had already opened a gap of more than 2 seconds over Hamilton following the first lap and the German’s lead was never seriously threatened.
Vettel, who employed a two-stop strategy on the new Pirelli tires, made his first pit stop to change to softer rubber in the 14th lap, emerging in third place ahead of McLaren’s Jenson Button. He regained the lead two laps later when Hamilton made a tire change and never looked back, winning by more than 22 seconds.
“Very cool,” he radioed to his team after taking the checkered flag. “Excellent car. Excellent stops.”
The 23-year-old Vettel became the youngest F1 champion last year, finishing third in the season-ending Abu Dhabi GP to edge Fernando Alonso by four points.
“The car was quick but also reliable and that is the key,” Vettel said. “It’s the first time I have finished the Australian GP as well, so I am very, very happy.”
“With Lewis dropping off later in the race, there was no pressure, so I was able to control it,” Vettel added.
Renault’s Vitaly Petrov was a surprise third, claiming his first podium finish with a strong showing.
“To be honest I can’t believe I’m sitting with these guys,” Petrov said.
Alonso finished fourth, while Australian Mark Webber was fifth, as both used three-stop strategies — one more than the podium finishers.
“Here at Albert Park it seems I have a season ticket for fourth place,” Alonso said. “It’s the third time in four years I’ve finished the race in this position.”
That led to mixed emotions in the Red Bull garage as Vettel’s euphoria was offset by Webber’s ongoing failure to shine at his home race. It is the third time he has finished fifth.
“I wish it was already tomorrow, it was frustrating,” Webber said. “I wanted to get more out of it and we could have got more out of it.”
Button was sixth, falling short in his bid to win the race for a third straight year. He had to make a drive-through penalty after using a slip road to pass Ferrari’s Felipe Massa after the two battled in the early part of the race, and that cost him a shot at third.
“I tried to overtake him around the outside of Turn 11. I was in front before we turned in, but he went really deep into the corner and pushed me wide so that I couldn’t take my normal line,” Button said. “After my drive-through penalty I had to fight my way back, which was fun but also frustrating.”
Mexican rookie Sergio Perez’s dream debut was spoiled when he and Sauber teammate Kamui Kobayashi were disqualified after post-race inspections found their cars violated technical regulations relating to the shape and curvature of the cars’ wings.
Perez had finished an impressive seventh in his first grand prix after pitting just once, while Kobayashi was eighth.
Sauber announced its intention to appeal that decision to the FIA, motor sport’s governing body.
Their exclusion moved Massa to seventh place —lifting Ferrari above Renault in the teams’ standings — Toro Rosso’s Sebastian Buemi to eighth, while Adrian Sutil and Paul Di Resta of Force India found themselves in the points at ninth and 10th.
It was a bad day for Mercedes, with both Michael Schumacher and Nico Rosberg not finishing.
“I had a good start, made up quite a few positions, then had a good run into turn three, but as I turned in, someone (Jaime Alguersuari) knocked on to my right rear,” Schumacher said. “The consequence was I had a puncture which destroyed the right tire, and driving back to the pits basically destroyed the right floor. In the end the team decided for safety it wasn’t worth staying out. “
Hamilton also damaged his floor when he went wide on turn one of his 32nd lap, or perhaps shortly beforehand. He continued even though he said after the race the floor was “massively damaged.”
“When it touches the ground it stalls the underneath of the car and disturbs a lot of the flow,” he said. “I was having some oversteer moments, some stalling through corners and underbraking particularly.”
Even still, it was a credible performance by McLaren, which was expected to be off the pace early after a difficult offseason.
“We can take this and be very proud of ourselves,” Hamilton said. “A week or two ago we were not expecting to be anywhere near the top five.”
Petrov’s performance was impressive and would give a boost to a Renault team that lost No.1 driver Robert Kubica to serious injury after a rally crash during the offseason.
“In the race the team did everything perfectly,” Petrov said. “We can be very proud of what we have achieved.”
Rosberg was forced to retire shortly after colliding with Williams’ Rubens Barrichello on the 24th lap. Barrichello was handed a drive-through penalty for causing the crash.
The Bahrain Grand Prix was originally scheduled to open the season March 13. It was canceled last month by Bahrain’s Crown Prince after anti-government protests. FIA’s World Motor Sport Council has given Bahrain’s federation until May 1 to decide if a new date can be set this year.
The next race will be the Malaysian GP on April 10.