McLaren's Jenson Button has won the Formula One curtain-raiser in Australia, beating defending champion Sebastian Vettel. Lewis Hamilton was third while Michael Schumacher had to retire with mechanical failure.
McLaren's 2009 champion Jenson Button was able to claim the lead of the Melbourne Grand Prix off the start, overtaking teammate and pole position holder Lewis Hamilton. Effectively, but for a little shuffling in the pit lane, Button never relinquished his lead.
"Welcome to 2009!" Button said on team radio after the race, referring to the year he won the world title. Button thanked his team for their winter efforts designing the new McLaren Mercedes. "The car is beautiful, and it's quick!"
The winner of the first race of the season has gone on to win the world championship on nine occasions since the 2000 season. One of the exceptions, however, was Sebastian Vettel's first championship in 2010, when he finished fourth at the curtain-raiser in Bahrain.
Vettel recovered from a disappointing sixth on the grid to finish second behind Button, with the two-time champion looking relatively content on the winner's podium. A fortunately timed safety car phase, triggered when Caterham's Vitaly Petrov broke down on the start-finish straight during the front-runners' second pit stop window, allowed Vettel to leapfrog the other McLaren of Lewis Hamilton, who ran much of the race in second and ultimately finished third.
"I believe that we would have also made it past without the safety car. I had saved a little juice in my tires, and would have been able to attack Hamilton anyway, but we'll never know," Vettel said in a television interview with RTL after the race. "We have finished the race, improved on our grid position and learned a lot about the car. All that, hopefully, should serve us well next week."
The second race of the season at Malaysia's Sepang circuit will take place next Sunday; the short gap between races means that the teams are likely to take to the track with unaltered machinery.
Both locals in the points
Mark Webber finished fourth before his home crowd at the Albert Park circuit in Melbourne. Red Bull's other driver finished comfortably ahead of Ferrari's Fernando Alonso, who did well to recover from a lowly 12th on the grid. Kamui Kobayashi of Sauber, Lotus Renault returnee Kimi Raikkonen, Sergio Perez in the other Sauber, Australian Daniel Ricciardo and Paul di Resta of Sahara Force India collected the remaining points-scoring positions.
Mercedes GP had a difficult outing, albeit with some positive auspices for the rest of the season. Michael Schumacher, the best-placed German in qualifying, was running in third position - on course for the first-ever podium during his comeback - when a transmission failure forced him to retire from the race before half-distance. Schumacher said after the race that he was pleased to see that this year's W03 challenger appeared to be on pace with the leading cars, but cautioned that "the track here in Melbourne is not always the perfect barometer."
Nico Rosberg had an equally difficult day in the other Mercedes, ultimately finishing outside the points in 12th after losing out in a last-lap collision with Perez.
Pastor Maldonado, running a remarkable sixth for the surprise package of the weekend, Williams, suffered a huge crash on the last lap of the race. The sophomore driver clipped the grass at a chicane and snaked wide into the wall, having spent the closing phases fighting two-time champion Alonso over fifth place. The Venezuelan was not hurt, but missed out on a result that would have eclipsed the Williams team's entire team performance for 2011 - their worst-ever season - at a single stroke.
Nico Hülkenberg, who qualified strongly on his return to the sport, was forced to retire early in the race, while Timo Glock finished 14th for backmarkers Marussia. That may not sound like much, but it was Glock's best-ever result with the struggling outfit formerly known as Marussia Virgin, coming at the start of his third season with them.
Author: Mark Hallam
Editor: Timothy Jones