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.