He had joked prior to the race weekend that the trophy he really wanted in his cabinet was the one with the kangaroo on the side of it, and in walking all over his rivals in the F1 2011 curtain-raising Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne today, defending world champion Sebastian Vettel has sent out an ominous message – he is in no mood to give up his drivers' crown anytime soon.
There were a whole host of unanswered questions ahead of the race, with uncertainties over Red Bull Racing's use or otherwise of KERS – and it subsequently transpired that they had not had the device on the car all weekend – McLaren-Mercedes having failed to complete so much as a single race distance during pre-season testing and a tyre discrepancy with the top ten qualifiers on the softer compound rubber but the rest of the grid free to choose. Ultimately, there was no great change.
As pole-sitter Vettel made a textbook getaway when the lights went out, it was Lewis Hamilton on the dirtier side of the grid who scrabbled around more for grip, allowing Mark Webber to pull alongside on the run down to the first corner, but the McLaren star had the inside line and kept the position.
Behind them, Vitaly Petrov made an excellent start in the leading Lotus Renault GP, with Felipe Massa vaulting from eighth into fifth ahead of Jenson Button and Nico Rosberg, with double world champion Fernando Alonso finding himself out wide and edged almost onto the grass on the outside of Turn One and falling back from fifth to ninth behind Kamui Kobayashi. Force India F1 rookie Paul di Resta made a bright start to complete the early top ten, with Nick Heidfeld going some way to remedying his poor qualifying effort by moving from 18th up to P13.
With the majority of the field negotiating Turn One safely – something of a rarity at Albert Park in recent years – the only real drama involved Michael Schumacher and Jaime Alguersuari, with the Spaniard tagging the German's Mercedes Grand Prix into Turn Three and causing both drivers to have to pit at the end of the lap, Schumacher with a distinctly shredded rear tyre.
Rubens Barrichello's torrid weekend continued, meanwhile, when the Williams veteran found himself squeezed into the Turn Three gravel trap once again – only this time, he was able to extricate himself, albeit way down in 20th place – but the main action, as Vettel fairly bolted with a 2.5-second advantage at the end of the opening lap alone, was the fraught scrap between Massa and Button over fifth place, with the Briton harrying the Brazilian for all he was worth, and the Ferrari man defending his position as is his very life depended upon it.
With Massa holding up the pack and Button finding himself increasingly frustrated, the recovering Alonso swiftly disposed of Kamui Kobayashi – impressively, around the outside of Turn Eight – and Rosberg and rapidly closed in on the duelling pair. As Massa vigorously defended and Button energetically attacked – knowing that his podium chances were ebbing away by the lap – the two came perilously close to touching on more than one occasion in what was comfortably the best battle on the track.
The McLaren man finally found a way by his adversary – driving what must have been the widest Ferrari Down Under – in Turn Twelve, but he found himself in the escape road as he did so, and subsequently received a drive-through penalty for his troubles, sending him tumbling well outside of the top ten. In the ensuing confusion, Alonso seized the opportunity to snatch P6 from his team-mate.
As Pastor Maldonado became the first retirement when he pulled off the circuit in his Williams, Vettel and Webber both reported that their rear tyres were fading ten laps into the race – and two tours later, the home hero duly became the first driver to blink in F1 2011 for a 'scheduled' pit-stop, rejoining right amidst the traffic in ninth.
Alonso was next in the following lap – but conversely to Webber, the Spaniard opted for a scrubbed set of soft tyres – followed by Massa and Vettel, who returned to the track right in the wheel tracks of Button, who must have sensed the opportunity to hold the Red Bull up in support of his own team-mate Hamilton. If that was the plan, however, it soon failed when Vettel aggressively muscled his way past Button around the outside of Turn Four and proceeded to scamper away once again. Hamilton pitted on lap 16, restoring the status quo
As Vettel extended his lead to a fraction under eight seconds approaching the halfway stage, Heikki Kovalainen in the Team Lotus T128 and Timo Glock in the Virgin Racing MVR-02 joined Maldonado on the sidelines, along with Schumacher, who parked his Mercedes in its pit garage. That, indeed, marked the start of a luckless couple of laps for the Brackley-based outfit, and here's why.
As the inspired Barrichello scythed his way back up the order following his early delay, the most experienced man in the sport's history produced a superb move to deprive Kobayashi of ninth place into Turn Three, and then immediately homed in on eighth-placed Rosberg. Trying the same move again just a lap later, however, it all ended in tears as the 38-year-old came from too far back and clattered clumsily into the side of the Mercedes, half-spinning and precipitating Rosberg's retirement shortly afterwards with smoke pouring from his car.
Barrichello himself was forced to pit at the end of the lap, and subsequently had to serve a drive-through penalty for his over-enthusiastic indiscretion, and the fracas
allowed the recovering Button up into the top ten. The 2009 F1 World Champion wasted little time in relieving Kobayashi of seventh place up the inside of Turn One, before setting his sights on – yes, you guessed it – Massa once more.
Talking of old sparring-partners, Alonso just in fifth was fast closing in on his Abu Dhabi adversary Petrov – at just 1.3 seconds adrift of the Russian – as both homed in dramatically on the struggling Webber, who was lapping as much as 1.7 seconds slower than his race-leading team-mate and had slipped to more than 20 seconds adrift of Hamilton and almost half a minute behind Vettel.
Webber was the man to signal the beginning of the second round of pit visits on lap 27 – seeming to take his mechanics somewhat by surprise in the process – with Alonso following suit a lap later, but Petrov motored happily on in third. Hamilton, meanwhile, had problems of his own, with a broken undertray on his MP4-26 sending him off-piste through Turn One, as McLaren – the team that had covered the fewest kilometres during pre-season testing – entered uncharted territory.
Vettel pitted at the end of lap 36, and for the second time in the grand prix had to manoeuvre his way around the McLaren mechanics on his way into his 'box – with Petrov following him in shortly after, and conceding ground to both Webber and the chasing Alonso in the fight over the final podium position.
The next curiosity of this opening race of F1 2011 was a new fastest lap for eighth-placed Sauber debutant Sergio Pérez on lap 40, whilst Webber pitted for a third time two tours later, needing to complete 16 laps on his last set of tyres – and releasing Alonso. Knowing he needed to attack on his 'out' lap, however, the Australian then ran wide and briefly off-track through Turn Three – and when his pursuer pitted next time around, the error was enough to reverse the position and theoretically demote Webber from the rostrum.
Suddenly, however, the roles were reversed, and Webber was immediately all over the back of the Ferrari ahead of him, as he endeavoured to recover what he had lost. On their respective rubber – Webber the softer compound, Alonso the hard – it was the Red Bull that was visibly faster, but Petrov was a further 13 seconds up the road again, with nobody knowing whether the Renault driver would need to stop again. Webber's assault stirred Alonso into setting a new fastest lap of the race, but the former was getting increasingly ragged.
Vettel, meanwhile, was continuing serenely on and simply pacing himself at the head of the field with an eleven-second margin over Hamilton as the grand prix entered its closing stages – and aside from the Alonso/Webber battle, another good scrap was Button vs. Massa round two, with the Briton going around the outside of the Brazilian for P6 before they had even got to Turn One and leaving his rival to deal with the advances of the extraordinary Pérez right behind, the Mexican having made just a sole pit-stop all race and, even more incredibly, on the softer rubber for more than half of it.
With nine laps remaining, Massa then pitted again – and the biggest question now was as to whether the front-runners could make it all the way to the chequered flag on the same tyres. Hamilton was needing to nurse his car home in more ways than one, whilst Massa focussed his efforts on demoting Sébastien Buemi's Scuderia Toro Rosso from P9 to snare two points rather than just one, finding a way past into the first turn with four laps left to run.
Massa's team-mate Alonso, for his part, was fast closing in on third-placed Petrov as he eyed a final flourish to reach the rostrum and dropped Webber in his wake – but time was not on his side, and there would indeed be no change in the order.
As a jubilant Vettel – who has now led virtually every single lap of the past three grands prix – clinched the trophy he had wanted, Hamilton claimed a superb second with Petrov a magnificent third for his first-ever podium finish in F1. Alonso wound up fourth with the disappointed Webber fifth and parking his Red Bull immediately after crossing the line, and the combative Button – who had provided the majority of the race's scant entertainment – a feisty sixth.
Pérez was arguably the star of the race to take the flag seventh ahead of his Sauber team-mate Kobayashi, with the lacklustre Massa and Buemi completing the points-scorers. The remaining finishers were Force India pairing Adrian Sutil and di Resta, Alguersuari, a distinctly off-form Heidfeld, Jarno Trulli in the sole-surviving Lotus and grand prix rookie Jérôme d'Ambrosio making it all the way to the end first time out, albeit four laps down and in 16th and last place.
F1 2011 is go – and on the basis of what we have seen Down Under this weekend, his rivals are going to have to go some to catch Sebastian Vettel this year.
To see the race result in full, click here