MELBOURNE, Australia, Mar 26 – Sebastian Vettel out-manoeuvred Lewis Hamilton and the world champion Mercedes team with a stunning victory in the season-opening Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne on Sunday.
Vettel won by almost 10 seconds from Hamilton and Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas in a commanding victory of tactics and superior speed around the Albert Park street circuit.
Ferrari hadn’t won in Melbourne since Kimi Raikkonen’s 2007 victory and it was Vettel’s second triumph in Australia after winning the 2011 race with Red Bull.
It was also a major fillip for the fledgling season and the new generation of quicker cars after Ferrari’s superior pre-season test times as they chase their first world constructors’ title since 2008.
The victory was the German four-time world champion’s fourth for Ferrari and his first since Singapore in 2015 and his 43rd career win.
– ‘Bit of luck’ –
“A title challenge is a long way ahead. For now we are just over the moon at the start we have made here today,” Vettel said.
“I was not entirely happy with my start, there was a bit of wheel spin, but I was trying to keep the pressure on to give the message that we are here to fight.
“There was a bit of luck that Lewis came out in traffic.”
Ferrari got the better of Mercedes in the sole round of tyre changes which ultimately decided the race.
Hamilton’s early stop meant he rejoined behind the Red Bull of Max Verstappen which allowed Vettel to open up a decisive gap at the head of the field.
“A big congratulations to Ferrari and Sebastian,” Hamilton said.
“In the race, I struggled with the tyres. I had to stop very early and I got stuck behind one of the Red Bulls, but that’s just the way it goes.”
Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen was fourth with Verstappen fifth ahead of Brazilian Felipe Massa in the Williams.
Australia’s big hope Daniel Ricciardo had a heartbreaking day with gear box problems ending his race on the 29th lap after he was forced to start from pit lane when his Red Bull car broke down on the warm-up lap.
Hamilton, who went into the race on his fourth successive pole in Melbourne, got away safely and avoided trouble into the notorious right hander out of home straight.
But Kevin Magnussen in a Haas clipped the kerb and slid into the Sauber of Marcus Ericsson on the first turn. Both cars continued on in the race.
Hamilton grabbed a 1.5sec gap on Vettel after nine laps ahead of Bottas, Raikkonen and Verstappen.
– ‘The car’s done’ –
Hamilton made his first pit stop after lap 17 to change to soft tyres on his Mercedes to hand the lead over to Vettel and rejoined the race in fifth spot behind Verstappen.
“Race critical that you pass Verstappen,” Hamilton was told over the team radio to which he testily responded “how do you expect me to do that right now?” as his pace slowed behind the Red Bull.
Vettel came into the pits to change tyres and rejoined the race just squeezing in ahead of Verstappen and Hamilton.
When Verstappen came into the pits Vettel had opened a six-second lead over Hamilton at mid-distance.
Ricciardo’s traumatic race came to a sorry end on the 29th lap with his Red Bull coming to a stop with lingering gearbox problems.
“Sorry mate – the car’s done,” the Red Bull team told the disconsolate Ricciardo over the radio.
Vettel extended his lead over Hamilton to over nine seconds after 41 laps with the triple world champion seemingly unable to reel him in.
Bottas was pressuring Hamilton and was only just over two seconds behind in third place with Raikkonen struggling in fourth place ahead of Verstappen.
Mercedes had no answer to the pace of Vettel, who posted a new fastest lap of 1:26.638 in the final laps of the race.