Lewis Hamilton got his title defence off to a flying start with victory over team-mate Nico Rosberg at the Australian Grand Prix as Mercedes dominated the season-opener in Melbourne.
Hamilton’s victory never looked in doubt as he led from the start and maintained a margin of over a second over Rosberg for length of the race. Rosberg pushed at times but never worried the defending world champion, who managed fuel, tyres and his Mercedes W06 Hybrid to perfection over the 58 laps. Sebastian Vettel started his Ferrari career on a positive note with a podium and third place, but the gap of over 30 seconds to the two Mercedes shows the magnitude of the advantage the world champions have carried over from 2014.
But while Mercedes put on a show of perfection for the watching world, its rivals struggled even to start the race let alone go the distance. For the first time since the 1963 Monaco Grand Prix, the season started with a field of just 15 cars as making the grid proved problematic for three drivers. Prior to the race Valtteri Bottas was ruled out with a back injury from qualifying before both Daniil Kvyat in the Red Bull and Kevin Magnussen in the McLaren suffered technical issues on the way to the grid.
The first lap accounted for two more cars as Pastor Maldonado came off worse in a first corner collision and Romain Grosjean was forced to park his Lotus before the end of the lap. Maldonado was the last car in a chain of collisions that started when Kimi Raikkonen nudged team-mate Vettel and slowed in the path of Carlos Sainz’s Toro Rosso. A safety car was called out to allow the marshals to clear the stricken Lotus before racing resumed on lap four with Hamilton comfortably leading Rosberg and Felipe Massa in the Williams. Further down the field Sainz dropped from fifth to seventh and Raikkonen set about recovering the places he had lost in the first corner.
In attempt to give Raikkonen clean air, the Ferrari driver was the first to pit and adopted a two-stop strategy to try to scythe through the field. It appeared to be working as he set fastest laps on a new set of soft tyres but then came a cropper at his second stop when the left rear tyre was not properly fitted and he had to pull the Ferrari to one side.
The majority of the field adopted a one-stop strategy and it was after his single pit stop that Vettel managed to get ahead of Massa. The Williams pitted three laps earlier than the Ferrari and Vettel took advantage with a series of quick laps on his old soft tyres to gain a big enough buffer to pit and hold onto third. It was the only change of position among the top four all afternoon, as Massa pushed in the second stint to try to catch up but ultimately fell 3.6s short at the chequered flag.
Felipe Nasr took fifth place for Sauber and in doing so scored the team’s first points since 2013. The Brazilian rookie put in a remarkable performance to hold the Red Bull of Daniel Ricciardo and finish comfortably ahead by the end of the race. Nico Hulkenberg also put in an impressive performance to finish seventh in the Force India, which had only completed two and half test days before the start of the grand prix weekend. Marcus Ericsson had to adopt a three-stop strategy after a problem at the start forced him to pit on the first lap, but he recovered to eighth and impressed with a clean overtaking move on Sainz, who struggled to bounce back from a very slow pit stop on lap 24.
Sergio Perez took the final point on offer in tenth, depriving his old team McLaren of a point on its debut with its new Honda power unit. Although Jenson Button finished the race for McLaren, it was not a convincing performance as he finished a distant 11th. Combined with Magnussen’s smoky engine failure on the way to the grid, the enormity of the challenge facing McLaren is starting to become clear.
Max Verstappen also retired from the race after a couple of puffs of smoke from the Renault engine in his Toro Rosso, bringing a halt to his F1 debut on lap 34.
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