Sebastian Vettel cruised to a comfortable victory in the season opening Australian Grand Prix ahead of Lewis Hamilton in the much improved McLaren and Vitaly Petrov. Petrov was one of the stars of the race and became the first Russian driver in history to finish a Grand Prix on the podium.
The reigning world champion took a commanding lead into the first corner and ended the opening lap 2.4s clear of the field as he quickly stamped his authority on proceedings. Behind him Hamilton made a slow get away, hampered by wheel spin on the dirty side of the grid. The McLaren driver lost second almost immediately to Mark Webber but with the Red Bull team not using KERS in the race Hamilton was able to get back ahead into the first corner.
Vitaly Petrov held fourth position into the first corner after a strong start form sixth that saw the Renault driver hug the inside of the first corner and take the position after Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso were cautious on the outside, presumably the Spaniard was thinking about his opening lap spin last year.
With Alonso circumspect into turn one his teammate, Felipe Massa, pounced and jumped from eighth on the grid to being right on Petrov’s tail as the field headed into turn three. Massa tried to drive around the outside of Petrov into the tight second gear left hander but the Russian held his line and kept Massa at bay, it was to be the first of many strong decisions made by Petrov.
The action at turn three was as frantic as ever with a fast starting Michael Schumacher clipped from behind by Jamie Alguersuari. The seven times world champion suffered a puncture from the incident while Alguersuari needed a new front wing. A promising race for both drivers was effectively ended at this early stage.
The opening stages of the race were dominated by the battle for fourth between Massa and Button. It was clear for all to see that Button had a considerably faster car but Massa placed his car perfectly throughout the circuit and left his rival with nowhere to make a move. Button was clearly getting more and more frustrated; especially when the Drag Reduction System (DRS) was unable to give him a significant advantage to try and pass into turn one.
His best opportunities occurred at the end of the long back straight where on lap four the former world champion tried a brave move around the outside of Massa but was unable to make the move stick, it would not be the last time that he tried such a move.
After his poor start dropped him to eighth Alonso set about recovering lost positions and on lap six he managed to get past Rosberg and start to close in on the battle for fourth ahead of him. While Button had been concentrating on the Ferrari in front of him in the opening laps he would now need to pay attention to the rapidly closing Alonso as well.
On lap nine it seemed that Button might be able to make a move on Massa. The Brazilian ran wide at turn five but managed to do just enough to hold Button at bay. On the next lap Button once more tried to make a move into turn three but was rebuffed. It was clear that the McLaren driver was getting more and more impatient; he could see the gap to the leaders was reaching 20 seconds and if he was to have any hope of a strong race he needed to make a move soon.
On lap 12 he made a daring move around the outside into the super-fast turn 11 chicane. Massa defended the inside, racing, line and pushed Button further to the outside. It was perfectly legal by Massa and having the racing line he could determine where he wanted to place his car. Button was left with nowhere to go but, probably due to his frustration, he decided to take to the escape road and claim the position. While everyone expected him to immediately cede the position to his rival, and avoid the possibility of a costly drive through penalty, there was no such attempt made by Button. When Alonso flashed up the inside of Massa into turn 14 it was clear that Button was destined for a drive through.
At the front of the field Hamilton had been running a superb opening stint and was just 2.5s adrift of Vettel. The McLaren looked planted and comfortable in the hands of Hamilton and with pitstops looming it was clear that the Englishman had a chance to move ahead at the first round of pitstops.
Red Bull saw this and brought Vettel in for fresh tyres on lap 15. It was a quick stop from the team but the champion would be hampered on his opening laps by being behind Button. Within seconds of Button moving ahead of Vettel the McLaren driver was given a drive through penalty for passing Massa off the race track.
With his chances of a podium effectively ended Button could play a pivotal role in helping his teammate win the race. If Button could hold up Vettel until he had to make his way to the pits Hamilton could leapfrog the Red Bull driver and take the lead.
Vettel sensed this and knew it was crucial to avail of the increased grip of the new tyres and get past Button. One lap after making his stop the extra grip of fresh tyres was perfectly illustrated by Vettel; he drove around the outside of Button at turn four. In light of Button’s penalty it was clear that this would be a hotly disputed move; Vettel had all four wheels off the track. The stewards took the decision that this was acceptable, probably citing the exit of the Ascari Chicane at Monza as an example where drivers can make the track longer and faster but not incur a penalty.
At the end of that lap Hamilton made his first stop and came out trailing Vettel, the gamble of running longer had failed to pay off. On the same lap Petrov, Rosberg and Kobayashi all made their way down the pitlane for fresh tyres.
With his tyres up to temperature Vettel sets a searing pace for the opening laps of his stint and opens a 7s lead to Hamilton.
With Button taking his drive through penalty on lap 18 Alonso is released and starting to close down Petrov for fourth with Massa, Sergio Perez, Rosberg, Kobayashi and Barrichello rounding out the points scorers.
Barrichello ran wide at turn three on the opening lap but had made a strong recovery and on lap 22 he moved past Kobayashi at the same corner. It looked like the most experienced drier in Formula 1 history was set for a strong race; especially as he closed in on Rosberg. On lap 24 the German was firmly within range of Barrichello but a rash decision to try and out-brake him into turn three would end in tears, and Rosberg’s afternoon.
It was a miserable day for the Mercedes team with Schumacher retiring a couple of laps earlier following damage from his first lap puncture.
While Vettel was pulling away from Hamilton at the front Mark Webber was losing touch with the leaders. The Australian, running third, was struggling with the harder compound tyres and was falling into the clutches of Petrov and Alonso.
On lap 23 Sauber rookie, Sergio Perez, finally made his way to the pitlane after the longest opening stint. The Mexican had been running in 13th but would stealthily move his way up the order for the rest of the afternoon by not making another stop, while the drivers ahead made one or two additional trips to the pitlane.
On lap 27 Webber pits for soft compound rubber and one lap later Alonso makes his second stop. It is not a quick stop by the Ferrari, 2.2s slower than Webber’s, and the Spanish star resumes behind Webber but ahead of Button.
Released from the dirty air of Webber Petrov starts to fly and sets a series of fast times before making his stop on lap 36, the same lap as the leaders.
Prior to his pitstop Hamilton was pressing hard but unable to match the pace of Vettel, falling 12s behind his rival. On lap 34 he runs wide at turn one, over the grass. A replay of the incident shows that his under tray has worked itself lose and this is clearly costing him downforce and performance.
It is now clear that the leading trio are planning on making only two stops in the race while the earlier stopping Webber and Alonso will need an additional set of tyres. Petrov is now exceptionally well placed to take his first podium.
With the race at three quarters distance Perez is flying and sets the fastest lap of the race. The Mexican is closing fast on Button with the team encouraging him to get past the former champion. It seemed at the time that he was increasing his speed because he was due to stop but the rookies unique single stop strategy would see him rise through the field to finish seventh and take six points on his debut.
15 laps from home Alonso makes his third stop, one lap after Webber made his stop and ran wide at turn three on his out lap. By the time Alonso makes his stop there is little doubt that he would take fourth position from Webber. Webber was close enough to use his DRS on Alonso but the Australian was unable to make much of an impression on Alonso and shadowed him as the Ferrari closed dramatically on Petrov.
The Russian had driven well up to this point and would not be flustered by the speed with which Alonso closed in on him during the closing stages of the race. With two laps to go the gap was just 1.6s but even with the added grip of fresher tyres Alonso was unable to make a move on Petrov.
The race drew to a close with Vettel taking a commanding 22s victory from Hamilton after the Englishman slowed to the flag in an effort to aid his ailing car. It was a tremendous performance from both drivers and while qualifying indicated that Red Bull had a large advantage over the field Hamilton’s performance showed that, in race trim at least, McLaren have a very competitive car.
Petrov held off Alonso for third with Webber dropping back at the flag to finish comfortably ahead of Button and the superb Perez. Kobayashi trailed his teammate home by 11s, a rare occasion that the Japanese star has been overshadowed by his teammate.
With a handful of laps remaining Massa used the DRS to pass Sebastian Buemi’s Toro Rosso and claim ninth position after a race that promised much for the Brazilian once again failed to live up to its potential. The battling Force Indias of Adrian Sutil and Paul di Resta finished just outside the points with the Scottish driver looking particularly impressive.
Australian Grand Prix
Albert Park, Melbourne
58 laps 307.6km
Pos Driver Team Time
1. Vettel Red Bull-Renault 1h29:30.259
2. Hamilton McLaren-Mercedes + 22.297
3. Petrov Renault + 30.560
4. Alonso Ferrari + 31.772
5. Webber Red Bull-Renault + 38.171
6. Button McLaren-Mercedes + 54.300
7. Perez Sauber-Ferrari + 1:05.800
8. Kobayashi Sauber-Ferrari + 1:16.800
9. Massa Ferrari + 1:25.100
10. Buemi Toro Rosso-Ferrari + 1 lap
11. Sutil Force India-Mercedes + 1 lap
12. Di Resta Force India-Mercedes + 1 lap
13. Alguersuari Toro Rosso-Ferrari + 1 lap
14. Heidfeld Renault + 1 lap
15. Trulli Lotus-Renault + 2 laps
16. D’Ambrosio Virgin-Cosworth + 3 laps
Driver Team On lap
Glock Virgin-Cosworth 50
Barrichello Williams-Cosworth 49
Rosberg Mercedes 22
Kovalainen Lotus-Renault 19
Schumacher Mercedes 19
Maldonado Williams-Cosworth 10
Liuzzi HRT-Cosworth 1
Karthikeyan HRT-Cosworth 1
Fastest lap: Massa, 1:28.947